August 2, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Disclaimer:  Network pilots now in circulation are not necessarily in the form that will air in the Fall.  Pilots are often reedited and rescored, and in some cases even recast or reshot.  So these critiques shouldn’t be taken as full TV pilot reviews, but rather as a guide to the general style and content of the new shows coming your way.
HELL ON WHEELS –  Sundays 10PM on AMC starting November 6:   If Nothing Else Is On…

As we noted earlier today, AMC is suffering some growing pains:  negotiations and behind-the-scenes maneuvering at its signature shows Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead have become very public, and The Killing practically caused an audience revolt with its season finale.  The best cure for these kinds of problems is a new hit, and AMC will take its next shot at the brass ring with HELL ON WHEELS, in some ways its most ambitious to date, which launches (with Walking Dead as lead-in) on November 6.

AMC has become HBO’s biggest competitor in recent years in the all-important category of Emmy glory, with multiple award winners Mad Men and Breaking Bad taking the honors that used to belong to The SopranosHell On Wheels escalates the competition, aiming itself directly at HBO’s wheelhouse of large-scale historical drama.  Specifically, Hell is pretty clearly AMC’s version of the late lamented Deadwood.  We’re once again in the Old West at that moment when the frontier was being pierced by railroads, a time where savage violence and the beginnings of modern American society were balefully co-existing.  There’s even a stand-in for Ian McShane’s epic villain Al Swearengen:  Colm Meany as Thomas Durant, a loquacious railway magnate who expounds on his theories about evil and good as he ruthlessly pushes his tracks forward.  And our hero Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount), while not a sheriff like Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock, carries a similar don’t-mess-with-me vibe. 

But this, alas, isn’t Deadwood.  Which is to say, Hell On Wheels creators Joe and Tony Gayton are very far from being David Milch.  (The Gaytons’ previous credits include Uncommon Valor and the recent Dwayne Johnson flop Faster.)  Instead of filthy, poetic eloquence, we get stretches of clunky expository dialogue; instead of gasp-inducing plot turns, there’s a standard story of vengeance.  A lot happens in the Hell On Wheels pilot–a couple of murders, a brutal Indian attack on a railroad scouting party–but there’s very little in the way of a gripping storyline.  The best scene in the entire pilot is the pre-credits teaser, which raises expectations the rest of the show can’t match. 

Hell On Wheels wants to have monumental sweep (director David Von Ancken, a cable TV vet, provides some lovely landscapes), but there’s no narrative vision behind it.  Characters are introduced who presumably will have much more to do as the series continues–Common as an ex-slave who won’t brook ill treatment, Dominique McElligott as the wife of a railroad surveyor–and given little to make them interesting.  The pilot kills off its most interesting figure, and although Mount is a likable lead, he has to work very hard to convince us he has any sort of dark edge.  Worse, the show doesn’t seem to have anything particularly on its mind regarding the west, or the events surrounding the railroad’s arrival:  it throws in elements one after another, with no organizing principle in view.  The result is busy but uncompelling.

As the producers of Cowboys and Aliens could tell you, westerns are a tough sell.  Deadwood itself, however acclaimed, was never one of HBO’s most popular shows, and it was cancelled before its time.  Hell On Wheels is launching into a very tough timeslot, against the new Homeland on Showtime, the Hung/How To Make It In America duo on HBO, and the new Pan Am on ABC.  AMC is giving it their best lead-in, but that’s no guarantee people will return after trying the premiere.  The show is interesting, hardly a total loss… but the network should really close its deal for more Breaking Bad.

Read more about TV’s new shows at THE SKED PILOT REPORT.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."