I never got around to watching Hell on Wheels when it first aired; it was one of those shows I let accumulate on my DVR, gathering dust as the weeks went by. Critics seemed less than enthused by the AMC Western, which didn’t live up to the network hype or to the genre heights of HBO’s Deadwood. I couldn’t bring myself to get invested in something that no one else seemed to care about.
But when the first season of the series was released on DVD, I decided to give it another shot—my first shot, that is. It was only 10 episodes, AMC dramas often work better in marathon form, and I figured it would at least be an aesthetically pleasing show to watch. After all, The Walking Dead is gorgeous even at its worst, and sometimes a show’s stunning cinematography is enough to get me through a short season.
Perhaps it’s because I went into Hell on Wheels with such low expectations that I ended up really liking it, or maybe it’s just better than anyone gave it credit for. It’s not Deadwood, and it’s definitely not as high-quality as other AMC series like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. But it’s solid: It’s well paced, engaging, and yes, gorgeous to look at. It may not be your new favorite show, but it’s too entertaining to dismiss outright.
Hell on Wheels follows multiple characters attached to the construction of the first transcontinental railroad in 1865. It’s the story of Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) looking to avenge his wife’s death; of investor Doc Durant (Colm Meaney) looking to make his fortune; of freed slave Elam Ferguson (Common) and widow Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) trying to find their independence.
For the most part, these characters aren’t as complex as Walter White or Don Draper, but they retain plenty of the AMC qualities we’ve come to know and love: moral ambiguity, mood swings, an affinity for inappropriate sexual encounters. Hell on Wheels paints everyone in broader strokes than some of the network's other series do, but it’s dark enough to appeal to those who find USA and TNT cable series to be a bit too bland. Also, because this is AMC, there’s one very memorable beheading.
At the same time, I get that Hell on Wheels is a tough sell. If you don’t like Westerns, you might just not dig a series set in 1865. While it's not a straight cowboys-and-Indians tale, but it’s still storytelling in that vein—and there are certain constraints to the genre. The story is not always straightforward, but the character arcs and motivations are a bit more clear-cut. While it’s certainly an updated version of the form, the traditional framework is still there.
Ultimately, though, that’s part of the show’s appeal. In an updated version of the classic Western—as opposed to a modern Western like FX’s Justified—you can see the way contemporary sensibilities affect traditional tropes. In Joseph Black Moon, we get an Indian who struggles to balance his upbringing and his newfound Christianity. In Cullen, we get a “cowboy” of sorts who appreciates the difference between right and wrong—but still lets his moral compass swing in all directions.
The problem with being on AMC is that Hell on Wheels will always be compared to its sister series, two of which are widely considered the best shows on television. Hell on Wheels isn’t high art—though, to its credit, it does allow itself to focus on good storytelling instead of heavy themes conveyed through long-winded character speeches. (Take a hint, The Walking Dead.) Oh, it might take itself a bit more seriously than it should, but it never falls under the weight of its pretensions. Even when the music swells, you’re having fun.
So consider giving a chance to the show I deleted without a second thought. Hell on Wheels may not be worth critical adoration, but it’s definitely worth your attention. And I guarantee it will never dick you around for two seasons while its characters struggle to solve a murder mystery: at the very least, the series moves along at a gallop.
Hell on Wheels returns for Season 2 on Sunday, August 12 at 9pm on AMC.