July 19, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Premiere Review: “Hell On Wheels”


HELL ON WHEELS:  Saturday 9PM on AMC

In its 5 seasons on the air, HELL ON WHEELS has never achieved a sustained stability, shifting tones and narrative thrust on an almost seasonal basis as a perpetual bubble show in the ratings.  Based on tonight’s Season 5 premiere, this announced final stanza may be its least promising.  At this point, the only regulars remaining from Season 1 are hero Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), railroad tycoon Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), and the show’s embodiment of evil, known as The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), who started out as a sadistic former accountant who served as Durant’s muscle, and has turned into something like its unkillable supervillian.

Bohannon spent most of the previous seasons working for Durant on the Union Pacific railroad, but at the end of Season 4 he switched sides and joined the rival Central Pacific as the two lines competed to reach the Pacific Ocean first.  This meant that the colorful Durant was on screen for perhaps 10 seconds in the premiere, and the Swede’s presence was brief as well, although the episode’s ending made it clear we’ll be seeing more of him by putting him to work on the Central Pacific as the leader of a group of Mormon workers.  The episode, written by Co-Executive Producer Jami O’Brien and directed by David Straiton, served mainly as an introduction to Bohannon’s new associates:  the Central Pacific boss Collis Huntington (Tim Guinee), much more businesslike than the extravagant Durant; Bohannon’s goodnatured colleague on the railway James Strobridge (Reg Rogers); and new villain Chang (Byron Mann), a smooth-talking, ruthless Asian swindler and killer who provides Chinese laborers to the railroad while stealing half the payroll they’re owed.  He’s right at the edge of caricature, and while that’s nothing to be proud of, at least he has some personality, while the other new regulars are for the moment colorless.

Bohannon himself has segued from the vengeful assassin of Season 1, who only joined the railroad to track down the men who had killed his wife and daughter during the Civil War, to a gritty but old-fashioned good guy, one who was on a collision course with Chang almost instantly, and who’s joined this railroad to track down his missing second wife and child.  Along the way, he’s lost most of what made him distinctive, and at least as importantly, Mount has lost the co-stars who brought out the best in him, like Common and Dominique McElligott.  Mount is a charismatic presence, but with his current support, he mostly just looks grim and determined.

Hell On Wheels has always been a handsome production, and the move to Saturdays allowed it to score steady (but low) ratings, mostly with the older audience that turn up for westerns  A 5-year run, even at marginal levels, is a real achievement.  Hell, though, has spent much of its time in dramatic purgatory, neither making its own mark in the genre nor providing a sufficient amount of old-time fun.  Its smartest move may be putting away its guns while it still has some frontier left.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."