“Hell on Wheels” opens with a bang. Brooding anti-hero Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount, “In Her Shoes”), steps right out of a Sergio Leone film, blasts someone who’s wronged him sometime in his mysterious past right out of a confession booth and leaves the church, coat billowing. It’s not the first scene of “Mad Men,” but it’s pretty awesome.
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But while the gunslinger shoots first and asks questions later, the audience doesn’t have any questions at all, other than, “Why are they still talking?” and, “Who the hell was that guy?” and, “Why are they still talking?” A drama pilot that has lots of exposition is no crime. A drama pilot that just throws a bunch of uninteresting characters and plot lines out there without bothering to connect the dots, and relies on a couple of skilled actors to carry stilted writing? That’s liable to get ya hanged around these parts.
At the center of this Western-slash-tenth grade history lesson is a typical spaghetti Western protagonist. Cullen Bohannon is compelling enough, even though some of his character seems awfully contrived. He’s from the South, but he freed his slaves before the war — naturally he fought for the South anyway for the sake of honor. Someone killed his wife, and he’s out for revenge. Lazy though his conception is, Bohannon is at least an interesting character. Much of that should be credited to the actor — Mount gives an admirable account, hitting exactly the right Eastwoodian, steely, growly tones. Bohannon’s character and Mount’s performance are well defined and focused — a sharp contrast to the rest of the sprawling, scattered pilot.
“Hell on Wheels” refers to a wagon town that accompanies the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, the brainchild of Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”). Meaney has great presence, and he projects power in every scene. He’s pretty much Al Swearengen from “Deadwood.” But he’s given some pretty lame lines. He rumbles, “There will be betrayal! Scandal! Perfidy of epic proportions! But the lion shall prevail,” while staring at the camera.
Unoriginal characterization and hammy dialogue notwithstanding, Bohannon and Durant are still compelling. The rest of the show … isn’t. Hey, why not toss in a romantic idyll on the Nebraska plains with Lily (Dominque McElligott, “Moon”), a completely unrelated woman and some guy? As if this tonal shift wasn’t enough, they’re immediately jumped by whooping, tomahawk-swinging Native Americans, caricatured to the point of being as stereotyped and ridiculous as the white guys with facepaint in early Westerns.
As if Bohannon, Durant and Lily weren’t enough, there’s an out-of-nowhere baptism whose only purpose appears to be, “Look, here’s Tom Noonan.” There’s Elam, a freedman played by rapper Common, struggling to find his place in the world. Common is a solid presence, but he too is let down by some clunkers. Bohannon tells him, “You gotta let go of the past.” His rejoinder? “Have you let it go?” Cue dramatic music, fade to black. There are a couple of Irish brothers (Ben Esler, “The Pacific” and Phil Burke, “100 Million BC”) who serve as entirely unnecessary comic relief, even though they’re not funny. They introduce themselves by telling Bohannon that one of them has eight toes, and the other has 12. “Individually we’re freaks.” “But together we’re whole.” Seriously.
There was a lot of critical buzz for the second episode of the series, which saw the appearance of The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl, “The Twilight Saga: New Moon”), a mysterious authority figure. The Swede better prove himself more eloquent than Don Draper and more ruthless than Gustavo Fring, because as it stands, “Hell on Wheels” is just boring. “Here are a bunch of characters” is no way to approach world-building, and even if the show gets better, it will still be a disappointment for an outlet with as much critical and cultural cachet as AMC.