By Seth Abramson | Press Play August 30, 2013 at 8:32AM
Television connoisseurs have long considered American Movie Classics (AMC) the Pixar of the small screen: Everything the nearly twenty year-old network touches turns to gold. But much like Pixar, AMC has recently revealed itself to be only an imperfect vehicle for screenwriting genius. For Pixar, the first evidence of decline was the trifling Cars (2006), though the company's four subsequent masterpieces (Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3) were nearly enough for fans of big-screen animation to forgive Pixar its latest and most underwhelming efforts: Cars 2 (2011), Brave (2012), and Monsters University (2013). AMC hasn't yet experienced quite the downturn Pixar has, though it's worth noting, despite the current popularity of The Walking Dead, that no one would ever confuse either its writing or its plotting for that of network standouts Mad Men and Breaking Bad. And that's why when Hell on Wheels came along in 2011, it suddenly began to seem like the middling scripts and occasional hammy acting of AMC's zombie-apocalypse thriller were something less than coincidental. Hell on Wheels, whose third season premiered just two weeks ago, is widely and justifiably regarded as the worst offering on AMC to date. The reason? Bad acting, bad scripts, a bad concept, and a long line of small- and big-screen Westerns that have done everything Hell on Wheels aims to do, but exponentially better.
Hell on Wheels centers around Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate officer who's predictably mysterious and charismatic, though he also has—of course—the heart of a gentleman. Bohannon leaves his Mississippi home to work on the railroad, an inauspicious life decision that shortly takes him to Hell on Wheels, the tent city that follows the leading edge of the Union Pacific railroad. The landowning Southerner Bohannon released all his slaves prior to the onset of the Civil War; this is hammered home repeatedly in the show's early episodes, lest viewers begin questioning the likability of a man whose sole occupation at present is murdering former Union soldiers he has a grudge against. Of course, even Bohannon's half-secret homicidal agenda is entirely in keeping with the ground rules for a television anti-hero: he's trying to track down the men who assaulted and killed his wife. However, the fact that he doesn't know his wife was murdered when he begins his rampage (incredibly and inexplicably, he believes her to have committed suicide after being raped) undercuts his steely determination somewhat.
It's not entirely clear what there is about Cullen Bohannon to draw admiration or even interest. Like thousands of others of his era, he's a reasonably good-looking former soldier who occasionally led men in battle capably, who in the postwar era soon discovered that the homeland he'd once fought for no longer existed. If it weren’t for the focus of AMC's cameras, one would expect such a man to live and die anonymously doing hard labor somewhere in the American West, or drinking himself to a stupor in Dixie. Given even the dull-witted viewer's near-certainty that Bohannon will find and ultimately execute his wife's murderers—coincidentally, he's only got one man left to kill by the third episode of the series—it's not at all clear where the character's story should go, and there's no particularly compelling reason for a viewer to stick around and find out. Anson Mount may be an attractive and suitably understated leading man, but even a likely suspect for the role can do little with such thin gruel.
The show's supporting cast is equally uninspiring. Tom Noonan plays Reverend Cole, the obligatory fish-out-of-water evangelist tasked with converting sinners obviously beyond his reach; as in his appearances elsewhere (ranging from the great Manhunter to the criminally underrated films What Happened Was and Synecdoche, New York), Noonan plays "creepy" exceedingly well but "ethereal" and "wise" with a glaring ineptitude. You'd hardly let the man babysit your children, let alone shepherd you to eternity. Colm Meaney plays a vaguely Irish heavy the way he always has: By raising his voice and indulging in a series of facial tics that would make Elmer Fudd blush. Common—a rapper, not an actor—does his level best as recently freed slave Elam Ferguson, but his every utterance is so charged with bitterness and dormant rage that it's a wonder anyone in 1865 would hire him in the first place, let alone make him de facto spokesman for Union Pacific's overworked and underpaid black linemen. Dominique McElligott, clearly slated to be Bohannon's love interest from the moment she appears on screen—her bookish land surveyor husband is predictably written out of the script almost immediately—is a talented enough actress, but the presence of a British lady in the midst of Cheyenne territory in 1865 is so contrived as to offend even the most credulous of viewers. The less said about the show's heavily-accented comic relief the better: Ben Esler and Phil Burke do yeoman's work bringing outrageous Irish stereotypes back into vogue, as two entrepreneurs whose unlikely business plan involves a “magic lantern” and blurry slides of Irish vistas. As AMC has a long history of airing the best ensemble shows on American television, it's not exactly clear what's happened here. Of the ten to fifteen regulars on Hell on Wheels, it seems all but two or three were chosen by a ear-plugged and blindfolded talent scout who'd never seen any of their previous work nor watched even a single specimen of the Western genre.
One exception to the above is Christopher Heyerdahl, who plays Thor Gundersen, a ex-Union quartermaster from Norway whose experiences as a POW in Andersonville prepared him well for his new life as a Union Pacific enforcer. Appropriately spectral and menacing, Heyerdahl's performance is undercut by the fact that he hasn't actually been given much to do except illegally skim from the company and shadow Bohannon as he moves about the camp. It’s bad enough that Gundersen, known in Hell on Wheels as "The Swede," suspects Bohannon of killing a company hack on little evidence, as it undercuts viewers' confidence in his (strongly implied) intelligence. Far worse are his repeated and coyly cryptic intimations, to anyone who'll listen, that "there's something strange" about Bohannon. In fact, what supposedly makes the show's leading man unusual is the same hackneyed revenge plotline we've seen in everything from Django Unchained to Gladiator.
What's most surprising about Hell on Wheels is how poorly written it is. Meaney's Thomas Durant is so hamfistedly villainous that he actually slanders the just-murdered husband of Lily Bell (McElligott) and tries to ingratiate himself with her romantically during the same horribly contrived dinner-date. The racial animus between Elam Ferguson and several white Union Pacific men, much like the cross-racial sexual attraction between Ferguson and Eva (Robin McLeavy), a former white slave turned prostitute, is so awkwardly handled and woodenly written it makes the scriptwriters of Glory seem screenwriting prodigies by comparison. Even Bohannon, who's been given some of the show's better lines, turns in such a desultory performance as a railroad foreman and selfless do-gooder that he receives from even credulous viewers only slim credit for either role. One suspects the show's writers simply had too much confidence in their creations to realize they'd given them nothing actually interesting to do or say--a circumstance made all the more surprising by the fact that watching any previous Western would have offered sufficient guidance on what mustn't be done yet again. Instead, there's hardly any Western trope that Hell on Wheels fails to not only exploit but wallow in: a hero of few words; a helpless lady; hapless immigrant sidekicks; a cunning and humorless adversary; a greedy and unscrupulous businessman; a "converted savage" (Eddie Spears as Joe Moon, a baptized Cheyenne whose soul-searching is tiresome and trite); a preacher out of his depth; a dark secret that leads to many deaths; and so on. Deadwood this is not; that show, the best small-screen Western this side of Lonesome Dove, gave us fully-realized characters whose eccentricities and complex moral codes were entirely novel, and whose alternately dastardly and heroic deeds were, in consequence, entirely astonishing.
Yet the real culprit behind the lackluster presentation of Hell on Wheels is the show's central conceit: A mobile city of tents that follows the Union Pacific railroad as it makes its way slowly West. The show makes virtually no use whatsoever of the transient and ephemeral nature of Hell on Wheels, as not only does the cast remain fairly static, there are also no major plotlines associated with having to strike camp and move the entire town every few days. Nor can the show do much with its 1865 setting, as the fallout from the Civil War was—at that early point in the Reconstruction process—more or less predictable, presaged as it was by similarly sudden cessations of military hostilities in other nations throughout the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries. 1865 is simply too early for America to have done much soul-searching with respect to its recent near-dissolution, and consequently the former soldiers of Hell on Wheels are left asking one another easy questions like "Who did you fight for?", "Did you own slaves?", and (worst of all) "Did you have sex with any?" Meanwhile, Durant's ambition to squeeze as much money as he can out of Union Pacific's manifest destiny-driven enterprise is little different from that of any other war profiteer or shifty-eyed businessman. That the expansion of the nation's railroads to California represented for war-torn America a chance to self-realize its grand ambitions has been so thoroughly investigated in all forms of media that Hell on Wheels would need to go to extraordinary lengths to add to that narrative, and it doesn't.
AMC has, by now, earned enough trust from its viewership, including this author, that one finds oneself searching for some complicated explanation for the noxious badness of Hell on Wheels--rather than simply accepting that AMC greenlighted a project it should not have. Did the network, one wonders, worry that it hadn't yet ventured into Westerns, and was it thus predisposed to pull the trigger on Joe and Tony Gayton's flimsy script? Was it hoping to stand on the coattails of the nation's abiding interest in Southern culture, as epitomized by present ratings king Duck Dynasty? Did it see, in the moderate success of A&E's Longmire, a possible opening for yet another cowboy hero? Were the lush settings promised by a Western like Hell on Wheels simply too much for a cash-flush operation like AMC to resist? Were AMC executives seduced by writer Tony Gayton's pedigree, a pedigree that includes a film-school diploma from USC and an apprenticeship to John Milius, who was, among other things, the creator of HBO's excellent but equally expensive Rome? Certainly, the network must have seen something in the Gaytons, Tony particularly, yet it's not at all clear what: Tony's previous television work was limited to a single made-for-TV movie in 2006, and he's been credited on only five feature films, none of which were notable (the only exception being 2010's Faster, which starred Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson yet grossed only $35 million worldwide).
Critics have been predictably unkind to Hell on Wheels. The Huffington Post called it "tedious," TV Guide "heavy-handed," USA Today "as subtle as a sledgehammer," The San Francisco Chronicle "cartoonish," The
The final nail in the coffin for Hell on Wheels is that scourge of all television programs that begin slowly: Most viewers simply won't have the patience to find out if the show's writers ultimately find their footing. And given that the aggregate reviews for the second and third seasons of Hell on Wheels are not so different from those for the first--Metacritic lists Season 2 as a middling 60, and (with only four reviews thus far) Season 3 as a possibly promising 74--it's not certain that Hell on Wheels can offer viewers much payoff, even with the long runway it's been given. If you absolutely love Westerns; if you're an AMC completist; if you're willing to laugh out loud at dialogue you know isn't intended to be funny; if you find either Anson Mount or Dominique McElligott eye-catching enough to warrant squandering much of your down-time, by all means see if you can muster the energy to make it to Season 3 of Hell on Wheels. The rest of us will just have to be satisfied with the final episodes of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and remembering fondly the network's other triumphs: an episode here and there of The Walking Dead; the first season of The Killing; and much if not all of the single-season run of Rubicon. As cable-network track records go, that's still a pretty good one.
Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.