Hell on Wheels: Not So Wild West

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

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I thought this was a pretty interesting show.i do love westerns and i was so glad to see they finally make a series in that theme. i"m glad i didnt listen to the critics..sometimes they are wrong. actually usually they are. Its only the 1st ep so i am going to keep watching to see where the show goes..i am glad its on amc cuz if it was on the reg networks they probably would cancel it after 2 episodes.
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No offense but I'm glad I ignored you and watched it. I liked it, it was a little scattered but its the pilot. I have a feeling if it was more detailed people would complain it was too much too soon in the first episode. Loved the opening theme too, I'll give it a legit shot. AMC has earned my loyalty after taking up all my Sundays for the past few years.
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I didn't like it much. To be honest, I think my judgment's biased because I'm not a big fan of the western genre. I'm gonna stick with it for a few more eps because the plot could be greater than my dislike of the genre but I'm not holding my breath.
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Finally got around to watching it. I was weary that after hearing so many non-favorable reviews I would automatically not care for it. Well tickle me pink and shove a poker in my eye, I didn't think it was bad at all. The slow shots worked well with the stunning backdrop the locations gave us. We all know shows pick up few episodes in, and I definitely saw signs of that with each character setting themselves up for their course. I must say, I actually LOVED the music moments in the show, as they made the scenes feel a bit more tense to me. Can't wait for next week! Which is actually in a few days!
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Felt to me like Terra Nova... That kind of "write as we go along" kind of feel tho I know they don't do that. As someone pointed out, it seemed to be lacking a strong story to hang to. No major star. Ted Levine just got killed. There was no eagerness to see the next episode like there was with other shows, but hey, it's on Saturday and it is not bad... so maybe I'll have a peek again but I'm afraid it is going to be another Terra Nova. But some will like it.



I believe that a procedural western like The Rifleman will have a better chance.

(Mark Valley would be perfect in that series)
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I love Westerns and I thought it looked interesting enough to keep tuning in to see what happens.
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I liked the premiere but as with the Walking Dead, I need the main characters to kill off more of the not-so-main characters. I mean its a western for petes sake! Shoot the bad guy period. Maybe hang em if you wanna drag it out. (pun intended)
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I liked the pilot of this show. The authors major point of criticism is that you cant figure out "What the heck is this show really about?" - and then "Also, don't you dare compare this to Deadwood.". ??? Deadwood didnt had a clear direction whatsoever, but I still loved it. Things just happened - like in Deadwood or the Sopranos for example.Thats not a bad thing, the viewer has to invest some time and thought. And since when its a plus to know where the series ends up ? Also the main character shoots a man in the face in a church AFTER he confessed, absolutely loveable ! Give it a chance, Tim! And if you still dont like it for reasons you cant put your finger on - maybe I can help: the badly written monologue about zebras and the mumblings(what did he say) of the former slave ALMOST spoiled the whole episode for me.
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While I liked it, especially the lead actor is great, I agree that the direction or goal of this show is still lacking a bit but it sure was pretty. I too went in with low expectations due to some not so flattering reviews, so maybe that's why I kinda liked it. I will definitely keep watching.
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Me too. I kinda liked it more after finding out the lead guy was the same guy in that Britney Spears movie. Didn't even recognize him
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Forgot to mention that this show probably has the coolest intro by far. Very stylish.
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Tv.com you guys are wack!! Lol!! This show is way better then "boringwood" oh I'm sorry "deadwood" I love it,it reminds me of red dead redemption.
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I kept seeing that it wasn't fabulous before I watched it. Maybe my expectations were lower because of that, but I liked it a lot.

And HOW could anything compare to Deadwood after 1 episode?
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I think the pilot was pretty good. It opened with a bang (literally) and it ended with oh snap someone might be in trouble. Bohannon looks like a character am going to like.
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I was really looking forward to this show, but I got to admit I was left a little disappointed. Nothing in it really grabbed me. I will hang on for a few weeks to see what it turns into, hopefully episode two will give us more.
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I'm willing to give it a go for a while, if only for the visuals. Our hero is damaged from the war, and we're supposed to root for him, even though he shoots a guy in the face in a church. Asking a lot. But then, he seems nicer to the black guys than he ought to be, having been a Southern plantation owner. Elam is just as damaged, having been a slave his whole life. Lily has a surprisingly posh English accent, but then I suppose marrying a surveyor in Chicago makes her sort of high society at the time. She's damaged now, having seen her hubby murdered (she shouldn't be, the locals were just acting against illegal immigrants). Chief Brian, sorry, Durant, is just a robber baron (remember, the rich paid zero income tax back then!). I'm curious enough to want to see what happens next. And no, do not compare it to Deadwood. (But I was hoping for a show like it.)
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Haven't seen it yet, but they liked it on The Morning After on Hulu: http://www.hulu.com/watch/297487/the-morning-after-mon-nov-7-2011
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I enjoyed it.....interesting to see how the 1% of the time were as ruthless then as they are today. I'll wait for the characters to develop and hope it shows the plight of the Plains Indians as they are pushed off their land. The writing does not approach the quality of "Deadwood", nor does the acting, but I'm willing to give it a chance.
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Yeah, I was pretty disappointed. It may just take a while to build up but I found myself wondering most of the episode why it seemed to be lacking in story. At least any story that really drew you in to the series or had any depth to it.
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Eh, I found myself quite bored with this premiere. Maybe my expectations were too high? I agree that based on the little that we've seen her, Lily is a cool enough character, but I thought that storyline was so far apart from the main plot that it didn't interest me at all. It just seems like she'll end up being a companion and possible love interest of Cullen, so they wanted to give her a back story with some similarities (both having lost loved ones).



I'll keep tuning in, though -- I like revenge stories and westerns enough to give the show more than a handful of episodes to draw me in.
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Unknown Anson Mount unless you watched Crossroads? How about unless you watched Tully, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, or Conviction.



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