Hell on Wheels – The Great Transcontinental Railroad on a TV Budget and a Slack Script

It’s hard to tell a lot from a single episode of commercial television without becoming dependent upon generalities to describe what you’ve seen with Hell on Wheels. But since the episode was made of generalities then I don’t feel so bad about it.

First off, it looks good. The people look sufficiently grimy, the backgrounds and offices and everything else looks decent and believable. There are artistic touches as well. The grass is extra-green and the sky is ultra-blue to give a sense of unspoiled space. Then here comes the railroad to sully everything and everyone. So far so good.

But we do have generalities we have to deal with and it’s a problem. I don’t know if it’s due to this program being aired on commercial TV or what. Maybe the program would have been better served if it had been picked up by HBO or Showtime or something. But AMC is what we have to work with, which means all the constraints of commercial television. So let’s get to it.

Like I said it looks good. But you’ve seen these characters before. There’s the Jonah Hex character (a disillusioned Confederate soldier on a path to vengeance), the rapacious and Machiavellian railroad magnate, the bitter ex-slave, the feminist trapped in a stifling male-dominated culture, the fervent preacher, the saucy whore with a gleam of fun in her eye, and others. Not to say they aren’t characterized well even if they are familiarly drawn. Everyone does a decent job (given their capabilities) and all the characters are likeable (I suppose I mean watchable) as far as it goes. I mean, it’s hard for me to become emotionally invested in anyone after less than one hour of commercial television.

So there’s that.

All in all, nothing came across to me as over the top or maudlin or mawkish even though we are only exploring one facet of this huge enterprise. The creators have determined to focus their attention on a rather narrow aspect of this part of history. I may not agree with it but I can only watch what they give me. The acting wasn’t great, though. But I’m jaded about that. I never expect superb acting from commercial television. Therefore I am rarely disappointed in that regard.

Hell on Wheels refers to an itinerant camp that follows the railroad as it moves across the Old West. I suppose the creators didn’t really want to concentrate on that aspect so much because the series would be derivative of Deadwood and would immediately be judged that way. So all in all there are many good aspects to this series so far. It looks like we have the usual suspects and plot lines to investigate in coming programs.

But there are two main problems so far that, if uncorrected, will at the very least force me to find entertainment elsewhere. First, the writing. Nothing spectacular here at all, I’m afraid. It’s serviceable but that’s all it is. All right, I admit there’s only one David Milch, but I don’t get a sense of any one artistic driving force behind this series. I don’t see a vision here at all. Again, it’s early days and we shouldn’t expect too much from a single program. But I am a writer and good writing will always keep me watching (or reading) no matter what the subject matter. I don’t see that here, and I’m only saying if I don’t see it soon I will bail.

The second problem with the series was no sense of grand scope or panoramic undertaking. If you are going to write a series about a great engineering enterprise like the building of the Transcontinental Railroad then I expect to see that. Now I do admit I liked very much the juxtaposition (or attempt at juxtaposition) between the tiny engineering camp and the open expanse of prairie. But I thought the group of people working on the actual railroad was a little thin. Believe it or not the Transcontinental Railroad was built by more than, like, twenty guys.

I don’t expect TV to show me thousands of laborers working themselves to death. Historically, it is believed one life was given for every sleeper laid on the Transcontinental Railroad. I know television isn’t going to show me that. I know there are budget constraints. But we get no sense of how extraordinarily huge this project truly was. All we ever see is the tiny camp moving across the open prairie and the railroad tycoon passing his fat, pallid hands over maps in a loving manner.

There’s a lot to like in Hell on Wheels if you’re not expecting much to begin with. And a lot to be worried about. I have no problem giving this series another two or three episodes to see what direction they ultimately decide to move into and concentrate on. One thing that interested me was the lone Cheyenne riding after a white woman at the end, tracking her down after she killed a member of his tribe during a massacre. That might be good interpersonal conflict later on. We can only hope.

But I have to be honest. If the writing on this series doesn’t get much better I will hop off at the next train depot and shank’s mare home.

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4 Comments

  1. Melissa

     /  November 7, 2011

    I was set to watch Hell on Wheels but then read too many middling to bad reviews about it. I’m a bit surprised you liked it as much as you did considering the creators look to be creating the Hollywood version of the Old West that you have been recently railing against. I’m going to give it a few more episodes, read other reactions, and see if I’m going to invest the time with it.

    Reply
    • I think the only thing I like about it the most is the fact of the detail of the show. Stuff like clothes and architecture and furnishings, that is a good research tool. But you are right as far as the story goes we’ve seen all this before. I’m just hoping against hope this pilot was an aberration and maybe it will get its feet under it and take off.

      But I am not holding my breath and I won’t give it much else of a chance to impress me.

      Reply
  2. I think the juxtaposition of this “panoramic” project of building Transcontinental Railroad with the scene of the lone Cheyenne following the murderous white woman IS promising. Also, I was spurred by the previews to place into proper perspective the daily experiences of our neighborhood waiting on VERY, very, very long freight trains, sometimes requiring 3-4 engines passing so much more frequently than in the summer of 2009. Economically/livelihood-wise: very encouraging. So let’s withhold judgment just yet, okay?

    Reply

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