Hell on Wheels, a Heaven of a Show

Hell on Wheels, AMC’s new Western, is a great show. The best Westerns play on the theme of good vs. evil. And the worst have nothing. The heroes are not heroes and the bad guys are as good as they are bad.

Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl)

Back when westerns were at their height, anti-heroes began to trickle into story lines. I never had a problem with the anti-hero who wanted to live his quiet life somewhere and not wear the white hat. It was the anti-hero who was more anti than hero who caused me issue. Who did not care for the protection of society or something higher than himself, such as honor, maintaining the peace, family. . .

Hell on Wheels gals: gentle Dominique McElligot and tattoo face Robin McLeavy

The name of it escapes me, but I once saw an early 70s Western with hippie themes. It seemed druggy and psychedelic. In two words: it sucked.

I did not start this review with the intention of a diatribe on Westerns. But my worry with Hell on Wheels was that there would be no “good guys” or “bad guys.” Am I simplistic? Sure, maybe, possibly. But I want my heroes to be good, rebelling against injustice.

I don’t want to be second-guessing their motives. Foibles, character weaknesses: I understand them. No problem. But heroes who are evil, or who are purely self-motivated, do not get my time.

Anson Mount, who plays the main character Cullen Bohannon, is conflicted. His wife was killed by Union Soldiers and he is tracking the trail of her killer. Yankees parade his world. And he’s a Southerner with his closest friend a former slave, played admirably by the rapper Common.

The show has gotten raves:

The brainchild of the brothers Joe and Tony Gayton, AMC’s Hell on Wheels is the first Western on any size screen to tell the awesome and occasionally exhausting story of the post–Civil War construction of the transcontinental railroad. So far its strengths and weaknesses can be summed up in one sentence: it doesn’t aspire to be a Western, it aspires to be the Western. If ambition translated directly into achievement, Hell on Wheels would, at the least, be the best Western series since Lonesome Dove.

Hell on Wheels: Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), Tom Durant (Colm Meaney) 

And it has a good lineage:

The look, though, is constant. Like all of the best movie and TV Westerns since 1993, Hell on Wheels can trace at least part of its lineage back to Tombstone, written by the late Kevin Jarre (who was also scheduled to direct it before being fired a few weeks into the project). Jarre’s attention to period detail in clothing, weapons, and language set a new standard for Westerns and has influenced the best in the genre since then.

Hell on Wheels: Chief Many Horses (Wes Studi)

My suggestion? Watch the darn tootin’ thing. . . It’s some good old fun.

Hell on Wheels

Hey, I thought westerns were supposed to be dead! Apparently not. Case in point: Hell on Wheels. The new show, premiering on AMC this Sunday, looks like it could be interesting. From the official release:

Anson Mount, Hell on Wheels, AMC

“Hell on Wheels” is a contemporary Western that centers on former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon, portrayed by Anson Mount, whose quest for vengeance has led him to the Union Pacific Railroad’s westward construction of the first transcontinental railroad.

Developed by Endemol USA and produced by Entertainment One and Nomadic Pictures, “Hell on Wheels” is created, written, and executive-produced by Joe and Tony Gayton (Faster, Uncommon Valor, The Salton Sea, Bulletproof.)

The series premieres Sun, Nov. 6 at 10/9c.

I’ll bite. I don’t recognize any of the show’s stars. (Although Colm Meaney’s been around. A British meanie, right?) The players:

In addition to Mount (City by the Sea, Cook County, ABC’s Line of Fire), “Hell on Wheels” stars musician-actor Common (Just Wright, Date Night) as Elam, Dominique McElligott (Moon, The Philanthropist) as Lily Bell, Colm Meaney (The Conspirator, Get Him to the Greek) as Durant, Ben Esler (The Pacific) as Sean, Phil Burke (Mercy) as Mickey, and Eddie Spears (Into the West) as Joseph.

Anson Mount, rapper Common, Hell on Wheels

Hmmm. Reading the above, I recognize Common. But I forget where. I know he is a rapper, but is he a good guy? (Good guy definition: does not contribute to the degradation of society.)

Let’s head over to rap-a-pedia to check him out. Cut and pasted for your reading pleasure:

1. Common was invited by First Lady Michelle Obama to appear at a poetry reading on May 11, 2011 at the White House. This caused furor with the New Jersey State Police and their union, who disagreed with his lyrical content. The president of the New Jersey State Troopers Fraternal Association voiced concern to the White House. They cite the song “A Song For Assata” about a member of the Black Liberation Army and step-aunt of deceased rapper Tupac Shakur named Assata Shakur, previously known as Joanne Chesimard,who was convicted in 1977 of the first degree murder of New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster.

The rapper Common, in a fuscia v-neck sweater

2. Common used to be vegan, but is now a pescetarian. In addition, he is a supporter of animal rights and PETA. He appeared in a print advertisement for PETA titled “Think Before You Eat.”

3. Common is a Christian and has been a member of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago led by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright since his childhood. Following the controversy over one of Wright’s sermons, Common criticized the American news media’s coverage of the incident as having “an agenda.”

4. At a poetry reading, Common said, “flyers say ‘free Mumia’ on my freezer,” a reference to Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was controversially convicted of killing Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981.

Okay, AMC chose a controversial rapper, who may/may not be able to act, as one of the stars. I don’t agree with his life choices. Fine. I will still watch the show. We need westerns now, more than ever.

But this makes me question the casting. Let’s look into this Anson Mount guy. Wait, he appeared in a movie with Britney Spears, called Crossroads. Britney Spears? Aww c’mon:

Anson Mount and Britney Spears in 2002’s Crossroads, Anson Mount in Hell on Wheels

What does Anson have to say about his brush with the pop princess:

“At the time, I just saw it as a great work opportunity and a chance to make some money that I could use to go on vacation,” he tells the Associated Press. “It was everybody else who put me in this sort of good-looking, next-big-leading-man category.”

For once, I wanted to write a snark-free post. A feel-good, true-blue, pre-review. But I am still optimistic. Perhaps this one will turn out okay. . . A semi-semi-militant rapper and Britney Spears’ co-star. And a new western. I’ll take the latter and ignore the casting. The trailer looks great.

The rapper Common and Anson Mount. Looking Westernish. On AMC, Sunday nights

Update: A talented techie from the show commented on this post. His blog. His $0.02:

I’ve been involved with “Hell on Wheels” from the pilot through the first ten episodes. It’s not “Deadwood”, but it’s also trying very hard not to be that (though unfair comparisons are inevitable). The attention to detail and to history are top notch and the stories and characters get better as it goes along. It takes a train a while to build up steam, as with any endeavor. Give this show a chance and you’ll be rewarded. It surely is better than the vast majority of what’s on TV these days. I enjoyed the Hell out of every miserable, mud filled day I had on the set and I imagine anyone who likes westerns will be well pleased to have a new one to watch.