It is well known by now that AMC puts out quality television, with shows like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and “The Walking Dead” all being critically acclaimed. Now the network has dipped into the Western genre with “Hell on Wheels.” The series premiered Sunday night at 10 p.m. While it was a bit rough in spots, the pilot showed plenty of promise for what would hopefully be a great show.
Set in the 1860s, the show follows former confederate soldier Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount) on his quest to find the man who killed his wife, which leads him to the construction of the first Transcontinental Railroad. There, he is hired to be the boss of the black workers based off his former experience with slaves. One of who is Elam (Common) who looks to be a main factor in the show looking toward the future.
The show has some obvious bumps in the road, but it was still a quality hour of television. Those bumps could be easily smoothed over as the show progresses. The writing is rather weak in some areas; for instance, Cullen’s reason for being nice to the black workers. He met a northerner woman that showed him the error of his ways. Overall, the writers do a good job of making Cullen a likable anti-hero but they will have to continue to balance his vengeful side with his moral side for his character to work. They will also have to flesh him out more as a sympathetic figure. It is not enough to state his wife is dead to justify his actions. The writers will have to give us more reason to like him. They have already done that by making him be nice to the black workers, and everyone loves the silent bada– type, but if the show is to last Cullen will have to be developed more.
If the writing is weak in some spots, then the acting certainly is not. Mount puts on a respectable performance as Cullen, and Common is impressive. Cullen is similar to “Red Dead Redemption’s” John Marston. I suppose he could be compared to many anti-heroes in the western genre, but Marston came to mind. The most interesting performance is Ted Elliot’s. He could have made an interesting villain, but we can probably expect Colm Meaney’s Thomas Durant to be a possible threat. His speech at the end of the episode perfectly summarized the tone and foreshadowed dark things to come.
One great thing about AMC is that it can get away with so much violence. And the violence here, like with “The Walking Dead,” does not seem forced. It comes when the tension has reached a level where it’s unavoidable and the characters are pushed to the edge. Granted, the series opens with Cullen shooting someone in the head in a confessional but that was just a great way to start a new series. It grabbed the viewer’s attention from the get-go and while a lot of the rest of the episode slowed down considerably, there were still a couple scenes that were tense and unexpected.
The pilot did a good job of introducing the characters and this setting. Westerns are a tough thing to sell in this day and age, but “Hell on Wheels” is definitely worth your attention for the time being, and some good possible storylines have been set up.