Early in the new Western drama “Hell on Wheels,” which debuts Sunday night at 10 on AMC, railroad magnate Thomas “Doc” Durant gives a flowery speech to potential investors about how the construction of a trans-continental railroad would help fulfill America’s manifest destiny. He is eloquent, he is insistent, and as played by actor Colm Meaney, could not be more obviously full of it.
Yet despite the clear performance cues, that scene is immediately followed by one where Doc admits to a confidante that “It’s all horsecrap” shoveled into a room of gullible fools.
While the AMC original series brand is still relatively young, most of its shows, whether great (“Mad Men”), bad (“The Killing”) or in between (“Rubicon”) act like they want their audience to really think about what they’re seeing, and to read between the lines whenever possible. (“The Walking Dead” defies this pattern, but nobody expects deep thoughts from a zombie show.) In that one scene shift, “Hell on Wheels” establishes itself as a show that will spell out everything because it doesn’t expect its audience to put in much mental effort.
That seems appropriate, in that “Hell on Wheels” itself is a show that puts in the absolute minimum amount of effort to do what it wants to do. It’s adequate – certainly no more and probably no less – and seems content with that.
Were you to tell me that someone was making a basic cable drama about the building of the Union Pacific Railroad, I could pretty much picture every detail of “Hell on Wheels” in my head – and the ones I couldn’t are where the show just cribs from “Deadwood.”
We pick up not long after the end of the Civil War, and former Confederate soldier – who freed his slaves a year before the war, yet still fought for the South as a matter of honor, because that’s just how he rolls – Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) is stalking and killing a group of men who done him wrong during the War. His elaborate quest for revenge ultimately leads him to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where the Union Pacific is making slow and unsteady progress out west. Along the way, he encounters freed slave Elam (Common), Irish immigrant brothers Mickey (Phil Burke) and Sean (Ben Essler), crusading preacher Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan) and racist foreman Mr. Johnson (Ted Levine), among others.
Mount has carved out a modest career being professionally handsome, but he’s actually solid here as a squinty Clint Eastwood type who lets his sidearm do the talking for him. And he works well opposite Common, who’s made one of the more convincing rapper-to-actor transitions of late.
The real disappointment is Meaney, the reliable veteran who somehow fails to convince either when Doc Durant is supposed to be a menacing villain or charismatic hustler. It’s a performance that’s somehow hammy and flat at the same time, as if neither Meaney nor the show’s producers (it was created by brothers Joe and Tony Gayton) could decide exactly what he should be doing in micro or macro.
The pilot episode climaxes with Doc delivering a long, strange monologue in which he announces his willingness to be a villain, and explains that “history is written by the zebra, for the zebra.” At first we’re not sure to whom he is making these odd points, until we realize that he’s talking to no one. It is, in other words, not unlike the speeches that “Deadwood” regularly asked Ian McShane to deliver as Al Swearengen – except “Deadwood” had the wit to have Al deliver them to a busy prostitute, or else a decapitated Indian head so that it seemed only slightly eccentric rather than being shoehorned in because the writers had a colorful bit of rhetoric and nowhere logical to put it.
Doc’s propensity for speechifying – without somehow revealing anything interesting about himself – is one of many ways in which he unfortunately comes off as a poor man’s Swearengen, and it’s uncanny (and unfortunate) how many other elements of “Hell on Wheels” seem like cheap imitation “Deadwood.” You have Cullen as the clenched, quick-to-anger hero, and not being as impressive at it as Seth Bullock. Filling the Alma Garret role as the fiercely independent recent widow who’s destined to fall into bed with our clenched hero is Dominique McElligott as Lily Bell, whose surveyor husband dies in the premiere. (And unlike Alma, who was in a marriage of convenience and eager to move on, Lily is shown to be wildly in love with her husband, which makes her quick flirtation with Mr. Bohannon seem all the more forced.) Noonan’s Reverend Cole makes a less favorable impression than did Deadwood preacher Reverend Smith(*), while the entrepenurial Irish brothers collectively add up to slightly less than one Sol Starr. In one episode, Durant even starts dictating wholly exaggerated and/or invented details of a news story to a credulous reporter, much as Swearengen so often did with Deadwood newspaperman A.W. Merrick.
(*) Also, boo to the Gayton brothers for failing to put Noonan (who was The Tooth Fairy in “Manhunter”) and Levine (who was Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs”) in a scene together. Not quite as egregious as Jenna Fischer guest-hosting “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and not crossing paths with Lucy Davis (who played her counterpart on the British “Office”), but still a waste of an obvious team-up.
Now, certain Western tropes are inescapable – Bullock, for instance, wasn’t a new invention but a commentary on that archetype – and I can’t necessarily knock “Hell on Wheels” for, say, having a bluegrass theme song that at times sounds very similar to the “Deadwood” title tune. But the new show evokes the old one so frequently, and always as an inferior copy, that it does itself no favors. These are mostly cardboard cut-outs of the familiar types, even if they’re sometimes well-acted cut-outs.
The one real spark of originality arrives in the second episode, when we meet Doc Durant’s chief of security, Tor Gundersen, better known as The Swede. Played by Christopher Heyerdahl (sci-fi fans will recognize him from shows like “Stargate: Atlantis” and “Sanctuary”), The Swede is tall and pasty and otherworldly, and always acting like he’s in on some private joke. (He’s actually Norwegian, but doesn’t mind that no one seems to know the difference.) Like Cullen, The Swede carries his own Civil War scars, and the scene in the second episode where he explains the kind of “immoral mathematics” he learned at Andersonville is among the few times “Hell on Wheels” feels like it has any business being on the same channel as “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”
But that’s a great performance and character in search of a more adventurous show. Mostly, “Hell on Wheels” seems to have learned everything it knows about the Old West from other Westerns. Everything and everyone is exactly what you expect, and the show tries to spell out anything that might be the least bit confusing. There’s a running storyline involving Joseph (Eddie Spears), a Cheyenne tribesman converted to Christianity by Reverend Cole. He frequently crosses paths with his angry relatives – his father is, of course, played by Wes Studi – and they always converse in English, even when no white people are around. Why? Someone was worried viewers wouldn’t want to deal with only a few minutes of subtitles at a time would be the only logical guess.
And yet here’s the thing: I’ve seen five episodes of this show and I imagine I’m going to at least watch the rest of the first season. It’s not quite good (other than The Swede), but it’s also not especially bad (though it has occasional terrible moments), and I’m a sucker for Westerns. And that may ultimately be what AMC is banking on. Its original programming boom started not with “Mad Men,” but with the Western miniseries “Broken Trail,” which won four Emmys and broke ratings records for the channel. All of AMC’s shows have been chosen to be compatible with some part of the channel’s film library, and they’ve always done a brisk business in horse operas.
They don’t need the cowboy equivalent of “Mad Men” in order to have a hit show; they need something that looks convincing enough in a Stetson, spurs and a gunbelt. It needs just good enough, which is what “Hell on Wheels” is.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org