Hell on Wheels is a period drama set in the US right after the Civil War ended (and Lincoln was assassinated). First season covers 1865. An ex Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon, veteran of the war, is pursuing revenge for his deceased wife, who was raped and hanged by a bunch of northerners, the last of whom is supposed to be working as a foreman at the construction of Transcontinental Railroad. Before his death he reveals that there was also a sergeant who was a part to the crime, but gives too little detail to actually detect him. Bohannon gets hired to be a new foreman and really applies himself to the job while trying to find the perpetrator at the same time. Other storylines feature the head of the railroad company who’s trying to secure government financing, an ex-slave building himself new life as a freeman, a native american converted to christianity, as well as members of his tribe most of whom are not happy about the invaders, a priest who seems to be unable to get rid of violence in his life, and a wife of surveyor for the company who, unlike her husband, survived an indian onslaught to find herself in possession of extremely important maps.
So, I liked the show, and what’s not to like: reality reconstructed seems to be quite authentic (a lot of dirt, a lot of easy death; no movie clichés, like cowboys; no attempts to find excuse for the white men’s disgraceful policy with native americans); main characters are all quite different, all pursuing their own agenda, all their incentives are in place, their storylines intertwining to create a pattern unique for this universe of discourse; technical implementation is on a decent level; acting is pretty good, and so on.
And yet, I sense something not exactly right. Like there’s not enough air, everything is too tight, or maybe the magnitude is not great enough. There may be various reasons for this; I don’t think it’s the writing – at least, not the dialogs; and it’s probably not the direction, as I’ve seen other works of almost all the directors participants, and I don’t remember getting that feeling before; besides, in this case it would’ve been concentrated in just a few episode, but it’s rather spread all over. I came to think, it’s the combination of executive decision to stay within the limits of the format (every episode is roughly 45m, no exceptions), which impacts the creativeness of directors (and writers, too), with certain casting decisions – some of the actors may not be good enough to pull their characters through to achieve a required depth. I’m still figuring that out; I might be wrong on all accounts here – it’s a bit of a mess.
Either way, – whatever wrongness I feel, it’s not significant enough to even put a finger on it, and it’s definitely not a reason to abandon the show. It has a lot of wonderful qualities with potential to become even better, and I kinda want to see how it all unfolds.
Created by: Joe Gayton and Tony Gayton
Directed by: David Von Ancken, Phil Abraham, Alex Zakrzewski, Adam Davidson, Michael Slovis, Michelle MacLaren, John Shiban
Written by: Tony Gayton, Joe Gayton, John Shiban, Jami O’Brien, Mark Richard, Bruce Marshall Romans, Mark Richard
Performed by: Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Common, Dominique McElligott, Tom Noonan, Eddie Spears, Ben Esler, Phil Burke, Christopher Heyerdahl, Robin McLeavy, Duncan Ollerenshaw, Diego Diablo Del Mar, Dohn Norwood, James D. Hopkins, Gerald Auger, Kasha Kropinski, April Telek, Ian Tracey, James Dugan, Wes Studi, Randy Birch, Andrew Moodie, Robert Moloney, Ian Kilburn, Ty Olsson, Tom Carey, Jesse Lipscombe, Ted Levine
Time: ~8h (a. 10 episodes)
Entertaining quality: 4+ out of 5
Art quality: 4+ out of 5
Links: (website) | (wiki)