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Why AMC’s HELL ON WHEELS Is a Hot Mess

Why AMC's HELL ON WHEELS Is a Hot Mess

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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