The new Western series fails to live up to its excellent HBO predecessor in almost every way
It might feel unfair to compare Hell on Wheels, AMC's new show about the race to span the United States with railroads, to Deadwood, the great HBO series that ended its run in 2006, if the former didn't so aggressively invite comparisons to the latter. Both shows involve the rough process of bringing organization to the American West, and try to struggle with race, class, and the consequences of capitalism. They both tell that story via men with handsome sideburns and a talent for violence, unexpectedly resilient widows with interfering older male relatives, prostitutes who pal around with reverends, and unscrupulous businessmen, setting up essentially similar dynamics between them. Only Hell on Wheels has the sight of the rapper and actor Common digging railroad cuts in a top hat and vest, which I suppose counts for something. But the show is badly overmatched everywhere it goes head-to-head with its venerable predecessor.
Some of the problem lies with the shadow cast by Deadwood's two main protagonists. Ian McShane's profane, hilarious, fearsome performance as saloon-keeper and Deadwood founding father Al Swearengen already shows its influence in another new show this fall: Kelsey Grammer's turn as Chicago Mayor Tom Kane in Starz's Boss. In Hell on Wheels, Colm Meaney, by no means a bad actor, tries to summit the same peak as businessman and Swearengen surrogate Doc Durant. He has some fine moments, notably when he sticks extra arrows in a corpse to make for a more dramatic massacre photograph. But he's left to monologue about his place in history and dictate portentous telegrams. The construction of the railroad is an event that will profoundly change the country, wresting control of territory from Indians and connecting disparate enclaves to established American cities. But where Swearengen struggled to balance his personal concerns with his plans for Deadwood's future, Durant talks about history but acts mostly in his own interests. For all his bombast, he's a much smaller man.
Similarly, Timothy Olyphant's turn as store-keeper-turned-Deadwood-sheriff Seth Bullock has been so influential that he's essentially reprising it in a contemporary setting as a U.S. Marshal on FX's Kentucky Western Justified. We met Bullock in Deadwood when, in an act of mercy and justice, he sped up a man's execution to save from him a vastly more painful lynching. By contrast, former slave-owner and Confederate veteran Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) enters Hell on Wheels when he shoots a Union veteran in the face while the man is in what he believes to be confession. It's an oblique act rather than a searing one, and while we learn more about Bohannon's capacity for mayhem and desire for revenge on the men who killed his wife, the show appears to have little sense of his inner person. Once again, a national conflict's reduced to personal vendetta.
But mostly Hell on Wheels has the all-too-common misapprehension that it's better to tell than to show. And that when you're dealing with big issues like the aftermath of Civil War and race, the show has a bad tendency to make blandly comprehensible what can be grand and strange while remaining profoundly human.