TV Review: HELL ON WHEELS 1.1, "Pilot"

Although nothing stands out in Hell on Wheels’ first hour, the show does very little to offend, looks great, is well-acted, and still has plenty of time to grow.

rating: 3

AMC has had one hell of a rough year. Contract disputes, the loss of The Walking Dead executive producer Frank Darabont, money issues, and the critical disappointment surrounding both The Walking Dead and The Killing, has resulted in what originally looked like the network to take HBO€™s crown suddenly finding itself losing a lot of its prestige and, in turn, scrambling desperately to get it back. But, to be fair, it hasn€™t all been bad news. Breaking Bad just came off one of its strongest years ever, and the critical consensus on the troubled Walking Dead seems to be that the writers have slowly started to address and fix some of the show€™s substantial issues. Still, going into AMC€™s latest offering, Hell on Wheels, one can€™t help but have a drastically lowered sense of anticipation than, say, when Rubicon or Dead first premiered. It€™s always difficult to measure the quality of a show from its pilot episode. A good pilot helps, but there€™s plenty of examples of shows (The Killing, the aforementioned Walking Dead) with incredible pilots that never truly follow through on their promise. On the other side of things, there€™s plenty of dramas that don€™t work well at all straight out of the gate, instead requiring time to grow and work out the kinks before becoming truly impressive. All of that noted, Hell on Wheels neither falls flat nor really succeeds in its premiere episode, instead finding itself in a sort of middle ground that puts it squarely, at least at this point, in the area of average. In fact, it€™s as traditional a pilot episode as one can get, laying most of the groundwork for the basic premise, touching on the lives of those likely to be major players, and introducing the setting with a couple of costly set pieces the usually higher-budgeted premieres can afford. I€™m not going to spend much time touching on the plot of this season premiere, but that€™s mainly due to the fact that the majority of it feels a bit inconsequential. This first hour essentially comes down to establishing three things: that our protagonist, Cullen Bohannon (played by Anson Mount), is on a quest for revenge, that said revenge will likely keep him involved with the constantly-moving construction campsite of the transcontinental railroad, (aptly titled €œHell on Wheels€) and that the mastermind behind this railroad project, Thomas Durant (played by the pretty great Colm Meaney), is greedy, violent, and, in his own words, a villain. If this all sounds a bit ho-hum, that€™s because, thus far, it is. Nothing in Hell on Wheels€™ pilot is particularly thrilling, and the whole affair has an air of familiarity that€™s hard to shake. It looks like a western, it feels like a western, and it talks like a western, but nothing here gives any sort of indication that this is a story that needs to be told. Granted, with Deadwood off the air, there€™s plenty of room for a show like this, but not if the creators of the show fail to put any sort of new spin on the genre. For Hell on Wheels to succeed, it needs to find its reason for existing or it will suffer the fatal consequence that the majority of this pilot suffers from €“ being utterly forgettable. But, again, this is a pilot episode. Although nothing stands out in Hell on Wheels€™ first hour, the show does very little to offend, looks great, is well-acted, and still has plenty of time to grow. And despite the missteps its home AMC has taken in recent months, we€™re still talking about the network that€™s responsible for two of the greatest television dramas of all time. For those reasons alone, Hell on Wheels deserves a bit of cautious optimism. With any luck, it may pay off.
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