“AMC’s Hell on Wheels derails the cable network’s momentum as a dealer of top-notch dramas.” That pronouncement comes from Boston Herald writer Mark Perigard, in his review of the cable juggernaut’s newest series, which debuts Sunday — and it seems to sum up many critics’ reaction to the blood-drenched, hour-long Western set amid the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Although it has earned some faint praise from a few reviewers, Hell on Wheels is the first recent AMC series to earn such a tepid initial reception. Mad Men and Breaking Bad remain almost universally adored several seasons into their runs, while The Killing and The Walking Dead at least managed to start off strong. But between those shows’ slow decline, the highly publicized tensions between the network and showrunners, and what looks to be their first true programming misstep, it seems the AMC backlash has begun. After the jump, we explore what’s bugging critics about Hell on Wheels.
For Maureen Ryan, of AOL TV, the main issue is that it’s deathly dull. “Hell on Wheels does one thing well: It’s good at being tedious,” she writes, later elaborating:
The problem is, while ‘Hell on Wheels’ is clearly trying to evoke Western archetypes and aesthetics, in most respects it displays a startling lack of imagination. The narrative and dialogue contain an almost fatal mixture of blandness and clumsiness, and aesthetically speaking, the drama is pedestrian and derivative.
Of course, a flashy and violent cable Western can’t escape comparisons to HBO’s smart, engrossing, and flamboyantly foulmouthed Deadwood. The show comes up in almost every review of Hell on Wheels, and the juxtaposition is rarely flattering. Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times summarizes what made Deadwood so much better:
Deadwood, which was written and created by David Milch and was a critical hit for HBO for three seasons starting in 2004, took all the conventions of the classic western and turned them upside down. Hell on Wheels takes many of Mr. Milch’s innovations and flattens them out — Deadwood for Dummies. The theme music is startlingly similar, if more muted, and so is the faded sepia and gray cinematography. That bleached-out look has become so ubiquitous on AMC that it’s almost as if there were a premium on bright color, like the window tax that drove 18th-century homeowners to brick up their buildings.
Other critics are focusing on the fact that, although the show is full of ideas — which is par for the course with AMC’s elevated fare — they don’t seem to add up to a coherent story. According to Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter,
There are elements to Hell on Wheels that are compelling. There’s potential galore — as there should be when you’re doing a genre series with so many iconic elements to choose from. But there’s a nagging suspicion that Hell on Wheels, created by Tony and Joe Gayton, doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, which may explain why after four hours it seems like a collection of ideas that haven’t quite gelled.
Troy Patterson at Slate has similar take. After proclaiming the show’s setting as “a sovereign republic of metaphor,” he concludes,
None of Hell on Wheels‘ juicy eruptions of pulp or sporadic glimpses of soul impedes the myth-belching progress of a story about the little engine of empire that could. The shots are heavily styled in a way that is variously enrapturing and distancing, taking cues from landscape paintings, Mathew Brady photographs, and revisionist Westerns — all to the end of toying with the old myths of the New World. But you can hardly see the world for the myths, and the show seems bent on encouraging a sophisticated audience to set its intelligence aside in a sophisticated way.
So, TV fans, is your trust in AMC shaken? Or have you already stricken Hell on Wheels from your DVR queue?