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October 10, 2015

After a String of Gems, AMC's First Truly Terrible Drama Is...

by Maureen Ryan, posted Nov 4th 2011 11:30AM
It was bound to happen sooner or later: AMC has a dud on its hands.

The network's track record thus far has been enviable, but 'Hell on Wheels' (10PM Sunday, AMC) is disappointing on any number of levels. I certainly wasn't a fan of how 'The Killing' ended its debut season, but at least that show started out strong, and the rest of the network's programs offer compelling characters, distinctive aesthetics or solid takes on conventional premises. In some cases, AMC's dramas excel in all of those arenas and many more.

'Hell on Wheels' does one thing well: It's good at being tedious.

There is a truly compelling performance in the early going, but that doesn't come from star Anson Mount, who is glumly competent at best.

Mount plays Cullen Bohannon, a Confederate veteran with personal vengeance on his mind (if you liked the misty flashbacks to a dead wife in 'Spartacus: Blood and Sand,' you'll find much to savor here). Bohannon gets a job on the transcontinental railroad, and in the second episode, the lone gunslinger tangles with a man the rest of the railroad workers call the Swede.

The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) works as the head of security for Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), the blustery man who is building the railroad, and the Swede is someone you can easily picture smiling amiably as he slits a man's throat. Heyerdahl, a savvy and skilled character actor who is well known to fans of supernatural and sci-fi fare, has such weird magnetism on screen that the instant he appeared in 'Hell on Wheels,' I began to hope that the narrative would turn its attention to the looming Swede.

Of course that didn't happen. No, we're stuck with Durand, whose bloviating quickly becomes predictable and tiresome, and Bohannon, who is probably supposed to recall the taciturn, archetypal men of classic Westerns. The problem is, while 'Hell on Wheels' is clearly trying to evoke Western archetypes and aesthetics, in most respects it displays a startling lack of imagination. The narrative and dialogue contain an almost fatal mixture of blandness and clumsiness, and aesthetically speaking, the drama is pedestrian and derivative.

Still, if you're a hardcore aficionado of stories set among men on horseback, you may be willing to put up with the drama's problematic elements, which include a diffident pace and unmemorable characters. I never was a big fan of Westerns and stupidly resisted watching the first season of 'Deadwood' for that reason. But part of the reason that HBO show belongs in the pantheon of great television is because it blew apart classic Western mythologizing while telling deeply felt stories about unforgettable characters and the community they created. It both reinvented and transcended the genre it came from.

'Hell on Wheels' doesn't do any of that, and to be clear about my own expectations, I didn't require it to. All I really hoped was that it would do what 'The Walking Dead' did for zombie dramas -- tell reasonably interesting stories within a familiar framework.

But Bohannon's personal quest isn't particularly compelling, and the world of the railroad camp is not populated with characters I longed to spend time with. Common gets little of interest to do as a former slave named Elam, the there's also a subplot about a young surveyor and his wife, but that's by far the most boring story of all. And I've been a longtime fan of Colm Meaney (raise your hand if you've also seen every episode of 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine'), but all he's asked to do here is chew scenery and give monologues that sound laughable in comparison with Al Swearengen's transfixing orations.

You'd think that a show about building a railroad would have some kind of momentum, but 'Hell on Wheels' barely gets up a head of steam in its first few hours, and whatever its destination, I won't be along for the ride.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Finally watched it online...I would say its a solid 6-7 stars out of 10. I think that some of the criticism Mo had may have been more with the performances...especially Colm Meaney. He was long winded and full of bluster, but I think that may ring true to that time period. The railroad executives, industrialists and millionaires of that time, were full of bluster, selling things that they didn't own and exploiting anyone/everyone they could (guess things haven't really changed when you look at Wall Street)...Historically speaking, America during this time period was all about expansion at any cost, and one person is a cog in a huge wheel that at any cost has to move forward...

First episodes are never that great in any show (even our beloved Mad Men, Buffy, Dexter, etc). Its usually a mad dash attempt to introduce characters that you will forget their names within a hour and give you a glimpse of reason to tune in the following week. Its usually the 2nd-5th episodes that gives characters depth and a solid storyline. Even after Deadwood, what I took away was I don't want to eat pork ever again and Ian McShane is awesome.
Mo....have you seen the next couple of eps...do they get better? Would you tell us if they got better>

November 08 2011 at 5:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dan Jennings

The Killing was AMC first truly terrible drama, lets get that fact out of the way now. I have yet to watch this show, but if it was anything like that.... well pass.

November 07 2011 at 3:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You forgot Terra Nova

November 06 2011 at 8:23 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I totally agree with a lot of the posts! Just because the writer doesn't like the show - she shouldn't condemn it before anyone else in the world has had a chance to watch it. I thought I was going to HATE the remake of TRUE GRIT, because I am a huge fan of the original. But, after watching the updated Cohen Bros. remake - I LOVED IT! I wish reviewers would give us a reasonable expectation of what it will be about rather than blast it off the TV schedule. I'm going to watch with an objective eye and make my own determination - which is what I always do anyway. Bang, Bang!

November 06 2011 at 7:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to AUSTINIGHTS's comment
George Otwori

Recently read the Hitfix article interview with Hell on Wheels" creators Joe and Tony Gayton. They said that they are not going for stylized western. So they don't have the great dialogue that was in Deadwood or True Grit. Seeing how they want there show to be accessible to mainstream audience.

Cable right now much like Broadcast is going through some changes. Basic Networks channels like USA Network and TNT are getting ratings averaging 6-9 million. TNT bossiness model seems to be trying replicate the CBS one. USA is full of light quirky shows always light on mythology. So there is danger that this progressive quality Cable TV niche we've all been accustom to for the last 10 years. May find itself trying to borrow attributes that have made broadcast TV graveyard that it currently is. When profit becomes more important creative quality.


November 06 2011 at 7:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Oh darn! I thought this was about the Oprah networks content.

November 06 2011 at 5:48 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Actually, I thought the article was well written. I don't read reviews very often but I read ALL of this one. The writer DIDN'T consider me to be a moron, and I appreciated it.

November 06 2011 at 3:47 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Ever since AMC went public, I have doubted their resolve to produce quality stories. I'm just glad that "Breaking Bad" only has one more season left so that AMC's stock holders' don't have the chance to ruin it. I would have found this show more interesting if it was about the building of the transcontinental railroad, and the racial relations therein.

November 06 2011 at 1:50 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I have never seen such a poorly written article. Did she have a copy of Roget's Thesaurus sitting next to her while writing this? It just seems that she tries to use LOTS of big words. I'm not a moron, and knew what MOST of the words meant, but some of these words are words that I have never seen used in the English language unless you're one of those MENSA douchebags (bloviating?? WUH??). I guess she thought if she "sounded" extremely intelligent we'd know that she is the Supreme Being when it comes to reviewing television shows. Next time spend more time just getting to the d@mn POINT instead of trying to WOW us with your word prowess!

November 06 2011 at 1:02 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Samantha's comment

I thought the exact same thing as I perused (haha) this article. We get it. You know big college words. Is this an opinion piece or a masters thesis??

November 06 2011 at 6:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Let the adults do what they wish for, the children will pay the brunt of the Parents misconducts. What this means is; The more damage a human does before it gives/donates for creation/birth, the more damage the Child/Children will show at birth. Don't hold your breaths but, remember this, for someday, those who partied to destroy will have an interesting look on their faces, when their children are in the crib with but a small part of their Intelligence concieved. What humans do not realize is, the sperm and the egg produces, what is truly in the heart/body of it's givers. And it's punishment is lifelong and noncorrectable! And life moves on wether you like it or not and Money does nothing but pays for the sins of those who think, someone cares!

November 06 2011 at 12:07 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to Lmrphoto's comment

The person who wrote this story is a woman and she's old...of course she wouldn't like something like this. She is better suited to stick with her Desperate Housewives or Sex in the City. LOL. She's the type of person who loves to watch boring things. Also, she has only seen a preview and not the whole series so how can she say that this new show is a terrible drama? Maureen needs to stick to her Sex in the City and write about something else. Below is a link to her pic and info. http://www.aoltv.com/bloggers/maureen-ryan

November 05 2011 at 11:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Nicolaes's comment
George Otwori

In the recent Ryan and Ryan Podcast. Maureen Ryan made it clear she's a lover of quality TV. TV Critics jobs are to analyze narratives give us good assertions on the creative execution. They watch hundreds of hours of TV than the average viewers. On some occasions they may get a little ahead of themselves. Mo Ryan has came back to comment on shows So when shows come in with mild ambitions and never increase them. Critics like Maureen Ryan are trying to give insight to fellow lovers of quality television,. So we won't see a devolution in what is progressive in scripted TV.

November 06 2011 at 7:33 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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