Thursday, November 10, 2011

Pilot Review: Hell on Wheels

Hell on Wheels (AMC)
Premiered November 6 at 10pm

It’s hard to dissect the pilot of AMC’s latest series since, more than any of the network’s other recent offerings, it feels impossibly dense. AMC has successfully mastered the present day, a zombified alternate reality, the 1960s, and now it’s coming for the 1860s. There’s no debating the aesthetic quality of the show, which looks and sounds like a relic of the past. The costumes are excellent, and the dialogue feels appropriately like it’s from another time. Colm Meaney’s Doc Durant is perhaps the character who most makes the show feel like a classic Western, chewing scenery from atop his railroad business. I was heavily disappointed to see Daniel Johnson killed by the end of the first episode, since Ted Levine of “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Monk” fame was brilliant in the role. Anson Mount, whose credits include the Britney Spears film “Crossroads” and the short-lived WB series “The Mountain,” is most comparable to Jim Caviezel’s Reese on “Person of Interest,” displaying emotion only occasionally and generally proving unenthusiastic in most situations, despite an impressive use of force to subdue any of his enemies. His hunt for the newly revealed but still unknown culprit who killed his wife gives him some motivation to stay in Hell on Wheels, and he and Elam Ferguson are sure to have an interesting relationship. I’m eager to see more of Reverend Nathaniel Cole, both because men of God are usually intriguing and because Tom Noonan is a superb actor. Analyzing the rest of the characters will have to wait until they are more prominently featured in subsequent episodes. Airing on crowded Sunday nights, this show is going to have to up the ante a bit to warrant my weekly interest, but I figure that AMC shows at least deserve the benefit of the doubt for a few episodes, and I shouldn’t have given up on “Rubicon” back when I did since I never went back to finish it.

How will it work as a series? It’s still entirely unclear who the prominent supporting characters are going to be, and they’ll need to be identified more explicitly than they were in the pilot if the show wants to hold its viewers’ attention. The historical setting enables plenty of compelling grander plot arcs, and if the characters are as interesting as their surroundings, the show should have no trouble constructing an engaging narrative.
How long will it last? AMC has had almost all hits recently, with the exception of “Rubicon.” This show’s premiere numbers were extremely strong, and following “The Walking Dead” helps it greatly even if its own ratings aren’t quite as high. Given the high cost of production, I think that AMC will want to show their faith in the show and renew it soon.

Pilot grade: B-

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