'Hell on Wheels' Review: AMC's New Western Could Use Its Own John Wayne

When you think about AMC’s exemplary originals, your mind runs to each show’s lead actor.

“Mad Men’s” Jon Hamm. “Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston. “The Walking Dead’s” Andrew Lincoln.

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It’s precisely what’s missing from “Hell on Wheels,” the channel’s new original series debuting at 10 p.m. EST tonight. Anson Mount (“Straw Dogs”), cast as a Confederate soldier finding his way in post-war America, can’t command the screen like those aforementioned AMC stars.

And that’s a shame, since “Hell on Wheels” boasts superlative production values and a fascinating glimpse at a complex chapter in the nation’s history.

The new series looks at America’s tentative steps in the wake of the War Between the States. Peace has been declared, and the government is eager to financially support new train lines to connect the battered nation’s coasts.

Cullen Bohannon (Mount) talks his way into a job on one of those expanding train lines. He’s a man with a tortured past, but he quickly bonds with a former slave (hip hop star Common) who finds emancipation a hollow victory.

Episode one sets up Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) as the series villain, the real-life scoundrel who made the railroad industry his own greedy toy box. How conniving is Dumont? He stabs arrows into the bodies of already massacred men to give a newspaper photographer better photos for the next edition. And, of course, he’s a greedy capitalist, so ’nuff said.

Other “Hell on Wheels” players include a suddenly widowed woman (Dominique McElligott) trying to escape an Indian assault, and a pair of Irish brothers (Ben Esler and Phil Burke) who entertain the masses with their newfangled slide shows.

The series doesn’t bask in cable’s liberal policies regarding profanity like HBO’s “Deadwood,” but the narrative does allow for a glimpse at how racial hatred ran amok in the era.

The first few episodes are far from perfect, especially a clunky shocker toward the end of the pilot episode that reeks of plot contrivance. But had an actor like, say Timothy Olyphant, been cast as Cullen things might have felt different. As it stands, Mount looks the part of a man whose soul is too far gone to save, but he can’t quite bring Cullen to life. Freeze frame any close-up of Mount, and you’ll see a grizzled actor right at home in the still Wild West. But his face lacks nuance, and that’s devastating to a character asked to play every scene cold stone straight.

Meany, arguably best known for his work on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” isn’t given meaty enough dialogue to make Durant a fearsome presence. The first episode finds Durant waxing poetic about the role railroads will play in the still-young country. It’s the kind of tortured verbiage that actually makes the character less intimidating.

Far better is the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), the stiff talking thug who gives our hero fits in the second installment.

The series still could be a nice complement to AMC’s existing lineup, especially if more supporting players of substance take some of the emotional weight off Mount’s shoulders.

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