When you're laying out the tracks for an intercontinental railroad, it helps to know where you're going. Ditto for a television series. AMC's Hell on Wheels embarked on its debut journey tonight, and while the scenery is pretty, we still don't have a strong sense of where we'll end up because the pilot only touched the surface. That can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing. In Hell on Wheels' case, it's showing signs of both of those.
Hell on Wheels is about a man looking for revenge on those who killed his wife, according to the Hell on Wheels Web site. According to the pilot I saw tonight, it's also about a mean old railroad investor, a woman on the run from the Cheyenne, and an emancipated slave that just don't think things have changed. The pilot did a pretty good job of laying out the basics for what I presume will be the characters we hang out with over the duration of the series, but it didn't do a good job of giving us much focus on any one of them. After just its pilot episode, Hell on Wheels is the perfect example of the show that you can't outright wholly recommend to a friend who missed it, but you wouldn't feel stretched to say it's probably worth a watch.
The relatively unknown Anson Mount (unless you are a fan of Britney Spears' Crossroads) stars as Cullen Bohannon, an ex-Confederate soldier that brings brooding to the West and has no problem shooting a man in the face in a church as we see early in the episode. He's not quite a guy we know if we're supposed to root for or not, nor does he make any effort to get us to like him during the opening hour. He's just heading West to find the yahoos that murdered his wife, and his travels take him to the building of the intercontinental railroad where he's hired to oversee several recently freed slaves that are digging holes to lay train tracks.
One of those slaves is an angry young man named Elam (rapper Common) that dresses a lot nicer than I do for work. He's none too impressed by President Beardy's Emancipation Proclamation, saying things are the same as they were before because he's working awfully hard while a white man on a horse cracks a whip in his general direction.
Overseeing all this railroad business is Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney), the time's 1%. He's the villain of this whole drama, because he tells us so in a questionable monologue where he literally says he's the villain in this drama and then goes on about lions and zebras for a little too long. It's a metaphor for himself, see! The hokey dialogue ends up undoing any work the episode did to build Doc up as a likable threat, which is a shame because Star Trek alums should never settle into roles that are anything short of amazing. Instead, Doc comes off as a carnival barker for the series ("Blood will be spilled! Men will be ruined! There will be lies and deception!") in an effort to explain what's going to happen next week and beyond. It's almost as if AMC execs sent some notes back to the producers asking them to explain Hell on Wheels' intentions, and they crammed an outline into that final speech. The whole "next on Hell on Wheels" thing works pretty well, guys.
Finally, there's Lily (Dominique McElligott), who win Best Character of the series after just one episode. The wife of a railroad surveyor, Lily survives an Indian attack by pulling out an arrow that went through her hand and into her shoulder and jamming it into her assailant's throat. Seriously hot stuff. Plus, she might be the only fictional Western female character with a loaded sex drive that isn't a prostitute at a whiskey hotel. She's instantly likable, mostly because she's instantly different from what we're used to seeing.
Those four characters take up much of the pilot's screentime, only two of those are intertwined so far (Cullen and Elam), and none of the actors set the screen on fire. I trust that the four will crash together at some point, but as of right now Hell on Wheels lacks cohesion to point it in a direction we can look forward to. By spreading things out so much, there's a serious lack of "What the heck is this show really about?" going on. Aside from the final moments of hearing Cullen's plan for revenge and the generic shades of good versus evil, there isn't a whole lot of theme to latch onto. Things just sort of happen.
Where the show really excels is in its presentation. There are more Westerns in development than you can lasso, and if they look half as good as Hell on Wheels, we're in for a hoot. The feel of the frontier is captured so well that by the time the show ended I was making sure I didn't step on any horseshit in my living room. No complaints about the sets or costuming here. Great immersion... except for the occasional piece of Western-tinged contemporary music (not a good call there).
It's too early to tell if Hell on Wheels is a keeper. So far all we've really seen is a prologue to something that may end up being interesting. But given the amount of television out there, I wouldn't blame you for waiting until the next train comes along. Also, don't you dare compare this to Deadwood.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom