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Why AMC's HELL ON WHEELS Is a Hot Mess

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by Seth Abramson
August 30, 2013 8:32 AM
21 Comments
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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 Philadelphia Daily News "meandering," and Variety "diluted and herky-jerky." Slate, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times said much the same. Two glowing reviews from The Washington Post and The Boston Globe notwithstanding, even the positive write-ups in Newsday, The Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Post, The Miami Herald, and The Wall Street Journal seemed to conclude that the show was solid if unspectacular, a significant come-down for a network accustomed to scooping up Emmys by the handful. 

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.

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21 Comments

  • Rebekah | July 26, 2014 9:31 PMReply

    I simple love this show and it's cast. You apparently don't know a good thing. As fare as Colm meaney's role I think its good even award winning (He's always been a good actor even in his trek days) .

    I like how they don't make the west like they do in romance books (Where the hero saves the woman extra). This is the nitty gritty west folks and the west wasn't a pretty place not at all and that is why I like this show, cause it shows the real side of the west.

  • RayD | July 23, 2014 6:45 AMReply

    I've watched all the shows mentioned in this review. Hell on Wheels is better. Its gritty, its coarse, it lets our imaginations take a peek at history. I'm sorry your favorite shows got cancelled, and take an unbiased view at what television is producing.

  • Hg123 | July 21, 2014 8:47 PMReply

    This review is very wrong

  • Donna | July 20, 2014 11:01 PMReply

    I agree this reviewer has an opinion but it's definitely not the majority. As far as the idea that other's have panned this show as meandering, jerky, etc...I don't know what else they were doing when watching this series. I can't wait for season 4. I grew up on westerns and have not missed them until now. I've watched the Walking Dead and cannot do any more than the 3 episodes, love MadMen and Breaking Bad. Loved Prison Break as well. Hell on Wheels is a keeper so bring it on...

  • Ana | June 23, 2014 1:27 AMReply

    This is a great show. I disagree with most of what this reviewer has to say. It's easy to turn your nose up at the creative efforts of others. "Hell On Wheels" is an exciting, unpredictable, and well-acted show - with great dialogue, thrilling sequences, and truly great character exploration. I'm really looking forward to the next installment.

  • waldo | April 24, 2014 8:29 PMReply

    The reviewer is full of horseshit.

  • jim | March 29, 2014 5:03 AMReply

    I totally disagree with this review also. I am not stupid for liking this series as everyone seems to imply. I mean seriously if you wash any amount of tv for any length of time you are not really using any grey matter anyway, regardless of content, but i still enjoy treating myself once in awhile.

    I think AMC has done a masterful job of developing the characters, they have made the series gritty, unforgiving, unafraid to lose important characters, much like TWD. It is clear in the third season that they are paying far more attention to detail and story flow than they did in season two, and as a consequence i am eager to see it continue.

    As to the lack of a major story line, did you watch it? how did you miss the race to be the first trans continental rail line? all other stories are minor, the program itself is named after the makeshift town which follows this construction, i think i see a fairly clear direction.

    HOW seriously is one of the few that have held my attention and i think well worth the watch. Really looking forward to the demise of that creepy swede.

  • trevor baldwin | March 24, 2014 1:29 PMReply

    have to totally disagree with the review, started watching hell on wheels by chance and am about to get up to the end of series 2. great series with some great action. disappointed that lily was killed off but looking forward to series 3 now.

  • LOR | January 31, 2014 9:23 PMReply

    If the majority don't like Hell on Wheels, then I'm ok with that. It will have a cult following. (as long as it stays on the air...or heck netflix pick it up maybe??)

    The fact that you don't know where the story is going is thrilling...keeps me watching, hanging on the edge of my seat. The setting, the photography & acting is great. The bitter rivalry between Bohannon & the Swede is PERFECT. The story has flaws,yes, but what show doesn't??Even breaking bad had it's flaws (in my opinion).

    So, to each it's own. I am not a fan of westerns but I LOVE Hell on Wheels. It isn't just a western but a drama, thriller, action etc.

    Also, I think season 3 didn't fare too well with viewers because of it's lack of a real epic ending... and the whole run around with characters... but I think devoted fans will be pleased with what happens in season 4 (hopefully they will make the wait worthwhile).

  • prashant | November 5, 2013 2:04 PMReply

    i agree, HOW is at best an extremely ordinary show. it is a dumbed down western for those viewers who do not wish to spend any energy in using grey matter. no story, no direction, no reason for the endless episode after episode. just when it felt that zombie shows and police procedurals will be the end of tv, HOW has set a new low in a different genre.
    if a show like magic city can be cancelled due to low ratings, but walking dead and HOW keep their viewership intact, everyone with some brains should be worried about the future of television in america.

  • Davis | October 26, 2013 6:46 PMReply

    I don't know what these reviewers are watching. This is a great show. I will be very disappointed in AMC if they do not return H.O.W. for season 4. It is a different kind of western, that shows some of the challenges of bringing in our first intercontinental transportation system. Something we take for granted these days. Yeah, its fictional, but it at least gets you to think what it might have been like dealing with unknown indians and protective landowners. Cool show. Entertaining show! Please make another run with it if not 2, 3, or 4 more!

  • Donna | October 20, 2013 2:06 PMReply

    I am absolutely in love with Hell On Wheels. Yes, it's messy, nothing too neatly tied up in a pretty little bow at the end of every episode - much like life in general. This nation was undergoing an extreme flux in how business was conducted and how the general norms of the new post war nation's society was going to move on.

    My only complaint - where do I get poster of the Season 3 DVD cover? It would go nice with a One Less Mule t-shirt.

    Concur with you ROB - fingers crossed for a season 4 - have to know how things come down between the Norwegian "Swede" and Cullen. And the baby's mama and Cullen. Can't see Cullen leaving family behind, can't see him Get Behind The Mule for very long either.

    AMC - PLEASE RENEW H O W!

  • Rob | October 5, 2013 6:16 AMReply

    I still love the show and I hope it gets renewed for season 4. All these comments, including the review, come from people that love to hear themselves try to sound intelligent. Just sit back and enjoy a really cool modern Western show. How many are there to choose from? C'mon man!!!

  • Mark | October 4, 2013 6:24 AMReply

    I have watched every Hell on Wheels show since the beginning and the first TV shows I ever saw go back to Howdy Doody in the mid-1950s. I've seen so many different shows in my 63 years of living that it comes as a big surprise to me how critical you are of the innovative, eclectic Hell on Wheels. It seems great modern TV to high-brow Ivy League graduates like you are Breaking Bad -- which just by its main issue (perfecting meth) is a really encouraging subject matter for an America and world suffering in pain by ever greater numbers of people hooked by soul- and body-killing drugs that are becoming more and more lethal -- and perhaps The Sopranos, which -- if you admired the writing and characters on that program -- glorified mob killings, torture, outrageous lying, and endless fighting by the primary married couple. At any rate, my friend, your writing and reviewing reminds me of people who just love to admire their own writing ... And I have been a writer and publisher since age 18 and working hard at one of the great university newspapers in America back in 1968. I Love Hell on Wheels for its oddities, incongruities, and the story lines to me are always intriguing. As opposed to you, I think the actors, by and large, are terrific, especially Anson Mount, Common, as well as all the "bad guys." Perhaps your extremely negative review will help to end the show with Season Three being its demise; and I have watched other fascinating programs destroyed by overly-analytical thinkers out there. However, I think the cinematography and the close-up shots on Hell on Wheels help to make it a very entertaining experience and my girlfriend of the last 24 years feels exactly as I do. So, in closing, I wonder why you can't just sit back, relax, stop trying to think so much, and just let the program's unusual post-Civil War setting take over in your mind's eye for at least an episode or two...as He'll on Wheels isn't, shall we say, anything like Bonanza, which, if my 63-year-old memory serves correct, was the #1 rated show on TV for several years back in the late 1960s...and He'll on Wheels towers over that old-time, silly, top-rated TV show from 40+ years ago. Wishing you success along your critical reviewing path -- if that makes you happy...Mark

  • Glenn I | August 31, 2013 7:43 PMReply

    My husband has gotten into "Hells on Wheels". I try to avoid television, though there are shows I enjoy and make sure I catch. "Breaking Bad" would be one of those. I got seduced by "Deadwood". Even though some of the characters in "Deadwood" were repellent, the writing was consistently interesting and the acting sold it. When K has "Hell" on I will watch a couple minutes and it tends to look good but tasty words don't emerge from the character's mouths and no plot I've caught hints of have convinced me I need to stick around.

  • Broud Fasher | August 30, 2013 7:36 PMReply

    The disappointing thing about this article is that it seems to only be a review of the shows first few episodes, which aired years ago. Since then the Gaytons have been fired, their replacement replaced, and Dominique McElligott, Tom Noonan and Eddie Spears have all been dropped from the show, along with the revenge storyline which was never resolved before being abandoned.

    A lot has changed, in other words, and I'd be interested in hearing your take on the show as it is now, as opposed to how it began. For my part, I will say that the writing is still absolutely terrible and ham fisted and that the story is going absolutely nowhere, but then... that's kind of interesting, isn't it? This show chugs along, seemingly with much carnage behind the scenes, but none of it ever amounts to anything on screen. Why is that? Does nobody in charge WANT it to be good? They seem to realise that it's BAD. Otherwise why all the constant changes? Is the bad writing a STRATEGY? If not, why perpetuate it when hiring new writers? Have the fine folks at AMC become so bad at their jobs that all they are capable of doing about this disaster is to shift the deck chairs on the Titanic as it slowly (rapidly?) sinks? Do they think their bizarre choices are helping, only to be utterly surprised every time their new hire turns out to be as terrible as the last?

    It's deeply fascinating. They know the show has no buzz, and poor ratings. They take that as their cue to make changes. They make the WRONG changes. Again and again. Morons.

  • Broud Fascher | August 31, 2013 1:09 AM

    Seth,

    Thanks for the reply. I think you're right that the show has done nothing with it's ensemble. However, that's not because of any inadequacy on the part of the characters themselves. It's because the writers seemingly have no fucking clue where they're going with any of this. Watching this show every week it is astonishing to consider that this is the work of paid professionals for whom screenwriting for television is a career (it's a large part of why I watch). Characters who have been there since the beginning haven't been developed adequately, or in some cases seemingly at all. They do things that are inexplicable, their motivations and personalities continually seem to change, story lines fizzle out without consequences and are sometimes seemingly abandoned altogether. It's as though the writers are randomly throwing darts at a board and seeing what sticks, hoping something will finally pan out. The result? Everybody just ends up seeming flat out crazy. Unfortunately, that's not a problem that's ever going to be solved by eliminating characters or introducing new ones. Every one of these characters could be used as the basis for compelling storytelling in more competent hands, and any new characters they could dream up would be just as hamstrung by the ineptitude of the writing as are the current lineup. ...It's not the characters that need to go. It's the writers.

    Yes, writing is hard and not everybody can do it, but these guys are being paid handsomely for their work, and they should be able to perform to industry standard. If I were AMC I would be asking for my money back. I understand the ratings are worse than ever this year. Maybe they'll finally get the message.

  • Seth Abramson | August 30, 2013 8:25 PM

    Hi Broud,

    I've watched the whole series (including this season's episodes), and I'll say that Anson Mount has certainly, as you've said, gotten into a groove. I like him and root for him, in substantial part because of the terrible loss he suffered last season (I won't say what it was). That makes me want to stick around and see if there's any way for him to find happiness. But Elam, Eva, the McGinnis brothers, even Durant--I just have absolutely _no_ idea what the show thinks it's doing with them, because the straight answer is: nothing. The reason I reviewed the beginning of the series is because it's the beginning of the series that has kept/ is keeping new viewers from picking up the show from the beginning. The show's primary flaw is that not that it hasn't kept its audience, it's that it never earned it in the first place; any viewers who've stuck around (as you and I have) no longer have much basis to complain, as we've made our own beds by staying tuned in. So reviewing Seasons 2 and 3 really would entail speaking only to those who are already invested. My goal here was to speak to why few new viewers are getting (or could get) invested, and why so many of those who were initially hoping to be invested lost interest. As you said, even the changes one might speak of in a Season 2/Season 3 review haven't really fixed any of the problems I've described re: Season 1. At this point, the only thing for the show to do is turn over almost the entire cast except Cullen and Elam and bring in a) strong female characters who aren't just NYC reporters given nothing of substance to do in the script, and b) competitors from other railroads (which they're already starting to do). But right now this is a show that has totally--even harrowingly--lost its way.

    Best,
    Seth

  • Broud Fasher | August 30, 2013 8:02 PM

    PS. I'll add to this that whatever the numerous flaws of this show, the cast has actually developed into possibly it's only saving grace. Anson Mount, who started off very creaky, has gotten into his groove, and all the supports are holding their own (keep in mind a few actors have already departed). Meaney is still a ham, but that's largely played for laughs at this point, while the Irish brothers have long since stopped being used to similar effect. They all do very respectable work making sense of the preposterously bad writing they're handed every week. I don't envy them.

  • George Papaspyrou | August 30, 2013 7:01 PMReply

    Although I only partly agree with your opinions, I do find them interesting and well presented. One doesn't come across well constructed sentences and proper English very often these days. Good work! George Papaspyrou.

  • CWW | August 30, 2013 9:25 AMReply

    You keep mentioning AMC's "long history" of quality television. Time must be relative because they only got this reputation after Mad Men started in 2007. And as of now, the only other show that AMC airs that gets any critical and audience respect is Breaking Bad. So two shows don't seem to establish this reputation for being a place for quality television. As such, Hell On Wheels is not some aberration on an otherwise unimpeachable roster of shows. It's par for the course and AMC's two good shows are actually the exception.

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