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MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: The Failures, Successes, Possibilities, and Danger Signs of HELL ON WHEELS

Press Play By Matt Zoller Seitz | Press Play January 16, 2012 at 8:38PM

Like a lot of people, I watched the first few episodes of AMC's "Hell on Wheels," Joe and Tony Gayton’s drama about the building of the transcontinental railroad, and then checked out. It wasn't awful, but a lot of it was weak, and even in its better moments it seemed not to have found its tone yet. The pilot and the next couple of episodes seemed stranded between grubby naturalism and slick, empty mythmaking. In one scene, the show would feel like a wannabe "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" or "Deadwood" muddy and lyrical and depressive. In another it would echo Sergio Leone or early Clint Eastwood ("High Plains Drifter" and "The Outlaw Josey Wales" especially). Yet another scene would feel anachronistic, glossy, and weightless. When I finally did catch up after the New Year, what I saw made me wish I'd been watching the show in real time. "Hell on Wheels" didn't turn into a great drama, but it settled into a distinctive groove, growing more relaxed and confident by the week, dealing with painful historical subjects and unique personal crises that most TV, even Western-themed TV, often ignores, and indulging in some of the most deliriously cinematic montages this side of "Breaking Bad." Some scenes and moments were flat-out amazing — so unlike anything else on TV that they made me want to forgive or forget the just-okay dialogue and production design and hit-and-miss performances.
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Hell on Wheels Common and Robin McLeavy

Like a lot of people, I watched the first few episodes of AMC's Hell on Wheels,Joe and Tony Gayton’s drama about the building of the transcontinental railroad, and then checked out. It wasn't awful, but a lot of it was weak, and even in its better moments it seemed not to have found its tone yet. The pilot and the next couple of episodes seemed stranded between grubby naturalism and slick, empty mythmaking. In one scene, the show would feel like a wannabe McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Deadwood, muddy and lyrical and depressive. In another it would echo Sergio Leone or early Clint Eastwood (High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales especially). Yet another scene would feel anachronistic, glossy, and weightless. When I finally did catch up after the New Year, what I saw made me wish I'd been watching the show in real time. Hell on Wheelsdidn't turn into a great drama, but it settled into a distinctive groove, growing more relaxed and confident by the week, dealing with painful historical subjects and unique personal crises that most TV, even Western-themed TV, often ignores, and indulging in some of the most deliriously cinematic montages this side of Breaking Bad. Some scenes and moments were flat-out amazing — so unlike anything else on TV that they made me want to forgive or forget the just-okay dialogue and production design and hit-and-miss performances.

Last night's season finale — which cut between vengeance-obsessed lone wolf hero Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) chasing one of the men he believed raped and killed his wife and a dance party celebrating the completion of 40 miles of track — encapsulated the show's flaws as well as its promise. The gathering-of-a-misfit-community scenario is such a durable Western trope that it's tough to mess up, but here the editing was choppy and the staging of important action was undistinguished (few of the dancers looked comfortable dancing). And the dialogue — never the show's strong suit — was so full of clunkers that I'm having a hard time singling out the worst line; it's probably a toss-up between the former John Brown follower turned man of God, Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan), telling Bohannon, "Choose hate, it's so much easier," and the ex-Pawnee concubine turned prostitute Eva (Robin McLeavy) telling her ex-slave boyfriend, "I love you, Elam, and I'm tired of being a tramp."

You can read the rest of Matt's review here at New York Magazine.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play.

This article is related to: Television, Hell On Wheels


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