Despite its title, AMC's newest drama Hell on Wheels is not a companion piece to FX's motorcycle-mad Sons of Anarchy. Rather the bloody, mud-spattered costume drama is a companion piece to HBO's Deadwood, a Western set in 1865 Nebraska at the leading edge of the Continental railroad's progress across the plains, in a fetid little pop-up town known as Hell on Wheels ("Population: One less every day"). Immediately postbellum America is a nicely complex and metaphorical moment in which to set a television show: The nation was in the midst of an identity crisis, or as the show's opening title cards more gruesomely put it, "The nation is an open wound," and so were its citizens. What it was to be an an American of any kind — African American, Native American, female, a veteran — meant something different in 1865 than it did just months before. Who are Americans, and their nation, in this brave, new, yet recently morally bankrupt world?
Having watched the first five episodes of Hell on Wheels I can only say for certain that they look smelly. Very, very smelly. The rest remains oddly, if somewhat promisingly, opaque. Hell on Wheels is simultaneously a ponderous tour through American history, a slow-burning revenge show, and a deadly earnest Deadwood knockoff. Manifest Destiny, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Credit Mobiliér are all conspicuously name-dropped in the pilot, the show going out of its way to declare its historical bona fides. Hell remains all potential, without the confidence, perspective, or pacing of a show hitting its targets, even five episodes in. It feels as though the creators can't yet distinguish between what the show does well — atmosphere, mood, those dirty, ripe costumes — and what it doesn't — dialogue, overdetermined shots of Jesus statues and Indian vision quests — resulting in a series as fuzzy as its leading man's grizzled beard.
That leading man is the show's most significant problem. Anson Mount, most famous for playing the love interest in Britney Spears's Crossroads, is Cullen Bohannan, a hard-drinking former-Confederate widower. He freed his slaves before the war and is now in the midst of hunting down the Union soldiers who committed some unspeakable acts on his late wife. It's Bohannan's revenge tour that brings him to Nebraska, after an early stop in a confessional booth in D.C., but it does not provide the show with the narrative thrust it's meant to. Unlike his compatriot in vengeance over on ABC's Revenge, Bohannan does not wear bandage dresses, just bandages, and he's not nearly as focused; unlike Jon Hamm, Mount's unable to use his character's reticence to draw you in — he just pushes you away. Bohannan is supposed to be the strong, silent type, a haunted, occasionally drooling alcoholic who can still command other men and shoot a fella's ear off at 30 paces, but Mount is impenetrable rather than mysterious.
Fortunately, he is surrounded by far more entertaining, if not quite realistic, characters. Colm Meaney plays the real-life Thomas Durant, the utterly corrupt head of the railroad and Credit Mobiliér. Spoiler alert, should the show last so long: Durant lost his job on the railroad in 1867, and the Credit Mobiliér scandal went down in 1872. As Durant, Meaney doesn't have a mustache, but he still seems like he's twirling one, giving the sort of pompous, long-winded speeches it is impossible to find anywhere on TV except in historical dramas. Common plays the raging former slave Elam Ferguson, a character who is not particularly well written and is regularly besieged by odd camera angles, but Common brings so much ferocity (and stellar neck beard) to the part, he makes it work. Most promisingly, the best supporting characters are introduced after the pilot: a white prostitute who was raised by Indians (and has the tribal tattoos to prove it), and the Swede, a menacing, weirdo law enforcer and former Andersonville prisoner who looks like Lurch by way of Lars von Trier by way of the American West, and has the syntax to match. Less promising are the two Irish immigrants who seem to have wandered in off the set of Tom Cruise's Far and Away.
All of these folks, and particularly the lawless, prostitute-laden town they call home, unavoidably call to mind the residents of Deadwood. Certainly, there is enough material here, out in the wild, wild, West, for two television shows, and yet Hell does suffer by the comparison. The most immediately obvious distinction — after the lack of "cocksucker" — is a sense of humor: Deadwood has one. Hell on Wheels does not. This is a red flag. With the tropes of "quality television" increasingly easy to tick off a check list — anti-hero, moral ambiguity, pretty costumes, big themes etc— the distinction between serious and self serious is harder to make. If it looks like a good show, and it sounds like a good show, and it has a leading man with psychological issues, it must be a good show, right? Not quite. Think of The Wire's street talk and Roger Sterling vs. The Playboy Club's 'we will address every issue of the '60s' earnestness — a series' willingness to include humor tends to indicate a security in itself, that it's not so worried about being taken seriously, because it is serious. One suspects that people laughed in 1865, even if there wasn't very much to laugh about— if Hell on Wheels is going to approach Deadwood, it might want to start there.