Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Lone Ranger — westerns were once a dominant TV genre. In recent decades, however, the Old West has struggled for relevance on the tube. On Sunday, AMC attempts to change that with its new series Hell on Wheels. Set during the construction of the Union Pacific railroad in 1865, the drama follows a vengeful Confederate soldier searching for the men who raped and murdered his wife. AMC is known for inspiring copycat programming, with Mad Men spawning Pan Am and The Playboy Club, while The Walking Dead has several studios prepping zombie series. Could Hell on Wheels trigger a westerns revival?
It starts out slow, but "gathers steam": Hell on Wheels commits a cardinal sin by "telling, not showing," says Curt Wagner at The Chicago Tribune. It's particularly aggravating that the least interesting character, railroad baron Doc Durant (Colm Meaney), is saddled with most of the "yakkity-yak-yak-yak." Viewers may think they're on a "slow train to, well, hell." Stick with it: When episode two introduces an enigmatic villain who viewers will "love to loathe," Hell on Wheels finally gathers "enough steam to get somewhere."
"Review: AMC's Hell on Wheels eventually gathers steam"
This isn't even the best western of the last few years: It wasn't all that long ago that HBO tried to revive the western genre, says Alyssa Rosenberg at The Atlantic. The show was called Deadwood — and it was better than Hell on Wheels. Both shows tackle race, class, and capitalism, but Hell on Wheels does so with a "blunt blandness," and with characters who lack the appealing complexity of Deadwood's crew. That's not exactly a recipe for success.
"Hell on Wheels: AMC's disappointing Deadwood rip-off"
C'mon. The show's not half bad: As familiar as Hell on Wheels may be, says Nancy Dewolf Smith at The Wall Street Journal, it "finds enough beauty, danger, and emotion" to seem fresh. Familiar archetypes are present — "thrusting capitalists… veterans mangled by war, and Plains Indians both menacing and menaced" — but the actors transcend their stock characters. A freed slave played by rapper Common evolves in "quiet and touching" ways, while a Norwegian immigrant branded "The Swede" is a "uniquely frightening figure." The series isn't perfect, but it boasts plenty of ambition and imagination.
"Tales of Old West and aging spies"
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- What the Middle Ages can tell us about the GOP's big charity myth
- The U.S. is about to sell weapons to Vietnam. That's bad news for China.
- Why is the Pentagon stuffing caves in Norway full of tanks?
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- The one thing the New Atheists get right about religion
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 3 horrific inaccuracies in Homeland's depiction of Islamabad
- Syrian women know how to defeat ISIS
- 5 baffling foreign-language versions of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song
- The uncomfortable truth in The Giving Tree
Subscribe to the Week