'Hell on Wheels' premiere review: Are these AMC's new Western zombies?

The latest AMC project to come down a now-literal track is Hell on Wheels, which premiered Sunday night with a pilot episode that attempted once again to jump-start a revival of that fundamental but faded TV genre, the Western. Alas, this post-Civil War saga, about the railroading of America starring Anson Mount as a vengeful Confederate Man In Black, lacked narrative steam.

Mount’s Cullen Bohannon is hell-bent on avenging the killing of his wife, but in the meantime, he hires onto the expanding transcontinental railroad as a foreman. He oversees laborers including Elam Ferguson, an emancipated slave played by musician-actor Common. The series is stuffed with good actors, including Colm Meaney as the corrupt rail entrepreneur (I won’t be the first of you to note that Meaney’s Thomas Durant is a bowdlerized, wit-excised version of Deadwood and Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen, more the fault of the writers than of the excellent Meaney), and Damages’ lanky police detective, Tom Noonan, playing a beanpole preacher here. Every character, however, is too one-note in the episodes I’ve seen: Common = angry; Noonan = eccentric, etc. The most promising character in the series may be Dominique McElligott’s Lily Bell, whose attack by and escape from some Indians provided the night’s greatest suspense.

Despite the fact that Cullen cold-bloodedly killed a man in a church confessional in the show’s opening moments, his character is supposed to remain our hero because of the whole he-lost-his-wife thing, and — much more of a stretch — because he’s kinder to the black workers and although he was a slave-owner, he only had five, and he freed them a year before the War started. This seems to be parsing the definition of a good guy rather too finely. But Hell on Wheels is such a strenuously “dark,” “edgy,” grim show, severely flawed heroes are meant to be its provenance.

One thing the sluggish Wheels suggests is that TV shows about railroads have to work extra-hard to keep the pace moving. While the Western genre has since its film beginnings used this form of transportation as a plot point or setting (1903′s The Great Train Robbery), it strikes you watching this series that there’s something confining about using the Iron Horse instead of actual horses as agents of drama.

Creators Joe and Tony Gayton seem to be straining for the sort of magnificently bleak emotional landscapes of an Anthony Mann-directed Western such as Man of the West. In the AMC press materials, they really ask for it, citing as overreaching influences everything from McCabe and Mrs. Miller to Blood Meridian. But what the Gaytons have gleaned from their cited influences is a misread cynicism and cheap irony. When Common’s Elam says he’ll “wipe his ass” with the Emancipation Proclamation for all the good it’s done him, he just happens to have a handy copy of the Proclamation — newsprint toilet paper. Too often, this show goes all gassy and fizzles: a humorless Blazing Saddles.

Perhaps you disagree, however, and Hell on Wheels is just the right, smoky dessert after your weekly meal of zombie guts: The Walking Dead followed by The Locomotive Dead?

Twitter: @kentucker

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