In the wake of the Civil War, America undertook one of the greatest feats of engineering in history: the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. AMC's newest drama looks at the notorious mobile town known as “Hell on Wheels” that the laborers, their families and more than a few seedy characters called home. It also throws in some menacing natives and a revenge plotline, because hey, why not?
The buzz: "Hell on Wheels" is AMC's latest attempt to continue its (somewhat questionable) winning streak, and will follow the much-loved "The Walking Dead" on Sunday nights. It clearly aims at the dirty western vibe of shows like "Deadwood," minus the incessant swearing and nudity, and looks at a rather compelling chapter of history that hasn't been given much of a film or TV treatment. The cast is mostly unknowns, with the exception of Common as former slave Elam Ferguson and "Star Trek" vet Colm Meaney as Thomas Durant, one of the driving forces behind the railroad's construction.
The verdict: If you like period pieces but hate how clean everyone looks on "Mad Men" and "Boardwalk Empire," then "Hell on Wheels" is for you. Other than that, there's not a whole lot to love about the simultaneously plodding and uneven pilot episode. As Cullen Bohannon, a war veteran hell-bent (no pun intended) on avenging his wife's death, Anson Mount is an unconvincing leading man; all too often his brooding just reads as boredom. Cullen is introduced to us as a confederate soldier and former slave owner, but rather than play with his his inner moral conflict as he works alongside recently freed slaves, the show sidesteps the issue entirely with a bit of backstory that could almost qualify as revisionist history. The other storylines feel disconnected; it's hard to tell how Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) and her engineer husband's death have anything to do with Cullen. At least Meaney seems to be having fun hamming it up as a greedy investor, but by the end of the first episode it's clear that the writing isn't strong enough to support his theatrics.
Did you know? The Wings song “Helen Wheels” was named after Paul and Linda McCartney's Land Rover. Presumably, it wasn't as odd for a couple of vegetarians to own an SUV in 1973.
'Hell on Wheels' premieres Sunday, November 6, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.