If you’re a fan of that classic American form, the western, you were probably tuned in Saturday night, August 10, for the long-awaited season premier of AMC’s Hell On Wheels. And why wouldn’t you be? The TV landscape for western drama is a sparse as the wasteland the railroad is being built through in the series which is entering its third season.
The first two seasons offered viewers a show which, though not as authentic as the network’s Mad Men, or as brilliantly written as Breaking Bad, still was solid entertainment with memorable characters and the iconic larger than life setting of the Old West.
The third season was delayed because of a change in the series’ principal writer, and when the long wait was finally over, and fans had watched the two-hour premiere, they must have thought the wait was just not worth it.
The new writing team has taken a good show and turned it into a mediocre, plodding, dismal bore. Two major characters have left, and the lead character has lost much of his appeal. The plot line, always the weakest part of the show, has slipped to soap opera idiocy.
The series was built around a strong lead character, Cullen Bohannon, played by Anson Mount as an embittered survivor of the Civil War, a hard man willing to use violence to solve problems, a man of few words, tough, weathered and smart. The new Bohannon in Sunday night’s premiere is a wordy, slick businessman in a three-piece suit, a far cry from the charismatic hero of the first two seasons.
Also sorely missed is the female lead, Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), killed off at the end of season two. She has been replaced with a pale woman newspaper reporter whose voiced-over sentimental crap excruciatingly capped off the two dreary hours.
Also mysteriously missing is the fine villain who dueled with Bohannon with palpable evil intent for two seasons. Thor Gunderson, known as “The Swede” (Christopher Heyerdahl) was a worthy opponent, and every drama needs a dark villain to balance out the lead character. It appears the new writers are going to try to transform the former head of the railroad, Thomas Durant (Colm Meany), into the bad guy, but it will be difficult for him to match the evil genius of “The Swede.”
Right from the start, the new season disappointed. In the opening scene, the writers chose to perpetuate the myth that wolves attack people, having Bohannon tussle with a wolf on the snowbound prairie. That was just the start of the downward slide.
The first hour of the premiere was wasted with an assembling-the-cast plot line, an old formula used many times in stories as wide ranging as The Dirty Dozen to The Avengers. To make it worse, the setting was shifted from the wide open spaces of the west, to the grimy streets of New York City, so that our newly loquacious main character could talk his way into a job as the chief railroad engineer.
It hardly seems necessary to get back together a crew of characters that ended last season together. The writers made a mistake by not plunging right into the kind of action that should be at the heart of the series, the challenge and difficulty of building a railroad across the great American wilderness.
The second hour was equally disappointing, with a story so contrived, it begged for a huge rewrite. You know a series is in trouble when the characters are not as smart as the people watching.
In the contorted story, the railroad is forcing a Mormon family off their farm so the railroad can pass through their land. Why? Are they going to run the tracks right through the family’s living room? Couldn’t the railroad pass through their land without their being evicted? It makes no sense.
But, playing for melodrama and a big finish, there’s a murder, committed by the defiant Mormons, setting up a revenge scenario and the lynching of a young Mormon man, all totally unnecessary, a story line that strains reality beyond all bounds.
Disappointing is the one-word summary of the new season and it probably won’t get any better. Writers can either write or they can’t. The premiere showcased the lack of writer talent brought to the series.
It’s all too bad, because Hell On Wheels was just about the only western drama left. While Hollywood and the TV networks churn out tons of cookie-cutter cop shows, lots of zombie and vampire horror, loads of mindless reality shows, and way too many superhero stories, the classic American western languishes, waiting for some visionary to revive it. Unfortunately, it won’t be the folks involved in creating Hell On Wheels.