Ellen Gray: WORKING ON THE RAILROAD

Common (center) plays a railroad worker on the new show.
Common (center) plays a railroad worker on the new show. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

AMC's 'Hell on Wheels' a Western set in tent city

Posted: November 04, 2011

* HELL ON WHEELS. 10 p.m. Sunday, AMC.

SET A SERIES in a lawless, ever-changing outpost in the post-Civil War American West and you're practically inviting comparisons to HBO's "Deadwood."

AMC, though, would be happy enough if its latest series, "Hell on Wheels," manages to attract the viewers who made its 2006 miniseries "Broken Trail" the network's highest-rated program.

Maybe it's good to know your limits.

"Deadwood" was an epic poem that happened to be set in a Western mining town.

"Hell on Wheels," whose title refers to the tent city that moved with the workers who built the transcontinental railroad, is a Western, albeit one that includes some "Deadwood"-like characters, among them an enterprising young widow (Dominique McElligott) and a cheerfully corrupt railway boss (Colm Meaney) who only wishes he could be Al Swearengen.

Anson Mount also stars as Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier out to avenge his late wife's rape. His search for her tormentors leads him to join the crew constructing the Union Pacific, where, as a former slave owner, he finds himself supervising freed black men, including a man named Elam Ferguson, played by Common ("Date Night").

If you're thinking "Hell on Wheels" must be a huge boon to Asian actors in Hollywood - Chinese immigrants having played a huge role in the construction of the first transcontinental line - think again.

That's a different railroad.

"The Central Pacific will be a hint in the show. I mean, we will know that they are out there, building," executive producer Tony Gayton told reporters this summer.

And indeed we do, thanks to Meaney, who plays the one real-life figure in "Hell on Wheels," Union Pacific executive Thomas "Doc" Durant. Asked in Sunday's episode if he's not in a race across the prairies, sums up his rival thusly: "The Central Pacific - those imbeciles will never make it out of Sacramento. They're so desperate I hear they're hiring Chinks."

Nice.

Though desperate himself to find a way across the Rockies, Durant's more eager to make sure the money the federal government's paying isn't wasted by, say, running tracks straight across flat land when a series of elegant S-curves could do.

"In case you haven't heard, this enormous undertaking is being financed by the enormous teat of the federal government," he tells one of his planners, forcing the man's face into a map. "This never-ending, money-gushing nipple pays me $16,000 per mile. Yet you build my road straight!"

And if that's not enough to make it clear that Durant's the villain of this piece, he's happy to spell it out.

"Is it a villain you want? I'll play the part. After all, what is a drama without a villain? And what is the building of this grand road if not a drama?"

Like Durant's ideal route, the five episodes I've seen of "Hell on Wheels" tend to meander a bit. But it's a Western, right? Eventually it's got to go somewhere.

Filmed in Alberta, Canada, where there apparently are no zombies (or martini-swilling admen) for a thousand miles, "Hell on Wheels" rolls along easily enough for a show based on a place that boasted its population was "one less every day."


Send email to graye@phillynews.com or read more at ellengray.tv.

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