It has been five years since AMC’s introduced the world to “Mad Men,” and more than four since the channel debuted “Breaking Bad.” That is arguably the greatest one-two punch ever from a TV network just getting into the drama game (HBO has “The Sopranos” on its side, but the two AMC dramas are close enough to that, and easily ahead of “Oz”), and it’s set the bar absurdly – and probably unfairly – high for the AMC original dramas that have followed it.
Since we first met Don Draper and Walter White, AMC has had a noble failure in the spy thriller “Rubicon,” a huge commercial success but uneven artistic one in “The Walking Dead, a show that invited an enormous backlash in “The Killing” and, most recently, “Hell on Wheels,” which was greeted last summer by many critics (myself included) as, at best, “Deadwood” Lite.
Though some of these shows have occasionally approached the lofty creative heights of the first two, none have consistently been in that neighborhood. It’s entirely possible that some upcoming AMC show or shows could live up to that standard – HBO, after all, has come back from its post-“Sopranos” fallow period with “Game of Thrones,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Girls,” etc. – but for now it’s probably wiser to judge each new entry on its own merits, and not on whether it’s a fitting successor to the work of Matt Weiner, Vince Gilligan and company.
So when I sat down to watch the first pair of episodes from “Hell on Wheels” season 2 (it premieres tonight at 9), I did my best to put thoughts of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” (and, for that matter, “Deadwood”) out of my mind and simply ask whether I would be more excited about this show if it had debuted on TNT, A&E, or any of a number of other basic cable channels playing the drama game.
And the answer was a qualified yes. It’s a solid, meat-and-potatoes example of a genre (Westerns) I’ve always had a soft spot for – no more, and no less. And that makes it a fine diversion for these late summer months, but perhaps not something to make time (and room on the DVR) for when the September deluge of original programming starts.
In the interests of full disclosure, I only made it about two-thirds of the way through the first “Hell on Wheels” season; whatever momentum I felt to keep watching it went away after it took a couple weeks off over Christmas. I had meant to catch up before the new season began, but other tasks kept getting in the way, and suddenly I found myself at a screening of these first two new episodes playing catch-up, with the help of a few friendly AMC execs.
In my absence, I had missed a number of significant changes among the central characters: Civil War vet Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) has left the Union Pacific railroad, and tabled his quest for revenge against the Union soldiers who murdered his wife, new widow Lily Bell (Dominique McElliogtt) has taken up with corrupt railroad baron Doc Durant (Colm Meaney), freed slave Elam Ferguson (Common) has come into a position of more authority, and there’s been a near-total role reversal between immigrant brothers Sean (Ben Essler) and Mickey (Phil Burke) and their nemesis The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), who has gone from being Durant’s feared enforcer to a disgraced Shakespearean fool.
For the most part, I was able to follow all of this, which is a plus or a minus, depending on your point of view – much of the success of USA’s breezier line of dramas comes from how easy they are to pick up after missing several episodes – and the presence of longtime “Breaking Bad” writer John Shiban as the new showrunner had me hoping for a substantial improvement.
But “Hell on Wheels” in season 2 is more or less what “Hell on Wheels” was in season 1. It’s serviceable. It’s beautiful to look at; the one noted area of improvement from when I stopped watching is how well the show has begun to photograph the Calgary terrain that’s standing in for the American Midwest. There are a number of interesting performances, and several other actors who are at least well-used (playing up, for instance, Mount’s strong physical presence). And it moves at a nice clip.
Most of the characters, though, are still thin and unengaging, even in their new stations. There’s depth, shading and a perverse sense of humor in the way The Swede is written (and in the way Heyerdahl, deservedly promoted from guest star to regular cast this season, plays him), and in the scenes where he’s paired with Tom Noonan as the drunken Reverend Cole, “Hell on Wheels” feels like a show that aspires to something grander than just good enough. But The Swede was the exception last season, as well, and the characters around him feel no richer, or like people whose stories are worth following beyond any innate interest in Westerns and the tropes of the genre.
And some of those stories seem to be moving in circles, even as the railroad itself keeps moving forward (albeit at a slower pace than Doc Durant would like). Without giving too much of the plot away, much of this season’s first two episodes feels like the show repeating a conflict from early last season; the motivations may have changed, but the end result is the same.
So, no, “Hell on Wheels” does not seem like it’s on a trajectory to the level of some of its AMC compatriots. But it also isn’t really trying to be, and it’s successful enough at achieving its own more modest goals.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org