Thursday, November 10, 2011

Hell on Wheels Ep 1: Pilot

Well, you last saw us blogging together on Person of Interest, which we grew tired of after about three or four weeks (I think both of us are still watching it, but it’s still not dynamic enough to be blogging on) but once again I’m joining forces with the lovely and talented Chris Doran, and this time we’re going to discuss Hell on Wheels. Chris and I have been discussing AMC shows for a long time; I think we watch all of them: Mad Men, The Walking Dead (which I blog on with Josh Winstead), The Killing (and boy, do we have our opinions on THAT one). Did you watch Breaking Bad and Rubicon too, Chris? My husband watched Rubicon but I didn’t, and I think Breaking Bad is the best of the bunch.

But this week a new show started, a different look at the frontier building than that previous Wild West show, Deadwood. It’s just as grimy and gory and lawless as the world of Al Swearengen, but like The Wire did with the drug trade, I felt it showed a lot of different angles to what it took to build the railroad (and how many lives were lost along the way). We’ve got menial workers, architects, magnates, evil bosses, and the lone gunslinger in the midst of it all, trying to find revenge for his dark past. While I think there were parts that felt a little forced, I really liked this debut. Unlike so many premieres (on both network and cable), this gave just enough of the main plot to situate us in the time and place without getting too bogged down in exposition. What were your initial thoughts, Chris?

Chris: Oh. My. I’ve been the subject of a few adjectives in my day, but I’d have to say that “lovely” is a first! Must be because the Internet subtracts a few pounds…

Now, what was the question? Ah, yes! AMC, how I love thee. Let me count the ways. Oh, wait – Nikki already did. My love for Mad Men knows no bounds, I was one of the seventeen mesmerized souls who watched Rubicon faithfully, The Walking Dead does the seemingly impossible on a weekly basis and Breaking Bad is destined to be spoken of as one of the most powerful, game-changing dramas in the history of television. And The Killing was … ah … they certainly … well … *cough* … how often do you get to see such a spectacular belly flop on TV? Impressive indeed.

And now, AMC returns to their roots, with a Western that echoes their early success with the original mini-series Broken Trail but smartly plays upon the “revisionist” Westerns that have graced screens big and small in the surrounding years. Despite the comparisons that Hell On Wheels seems to invite at times (from its theme music right on down to its closing soliloquy), I cannot honestly compare this show to Deadwood. Not only was that show was one of my favorites of all-time, it was one of the very few productions for television that could truly be called “Shakespearean” in its depth, complexity and richness of language. Nobody, not even the plays that were written after Shakespeare, should be measured by that yardstick. Hell On Wheels will be, and should be, evaluated on its own merits.

There is a reason why Westerns may always have a place in American consciousness in particular, and capture the imagination of many other cultures as well. The archetypal characters they sketch, and the morality plays that they present, are as close to mythology as this culture has ever produced. For me, this is made more resonant by the fact that this myth-making was going on while the history was still playing out. The Ancient Greeks evaluated every aspect of their lives in light of their gods, and Americans of the nineteenth through twenty-first centuries have been seeing themselves in the Gunslinger, the Lawman, the Land Baron and the Resilient Woman ever since the first stories from the Frontier filtered back to the hinterlands and cities. Endless variations on these characters are so familiar, so comfortably worn and yet so compelling that they turn up in every other setting, from inner cities (Dirty Harry, Die Hard) to outer space (Star Wars, Firefly).

So, how do our newest versions fare? Quite well, I think. Anson Mount gives us his best Man With … well, not No Name but actually a humdinger of one: Cullen Bohannon. (Full Disclosure: I am a bit of a name freak. I enjoy scanning credits for interesting names and will forever value the sport of baseball for its nomenclature. I admit it; they had me at “Cullen Bohannon”.) Wonderful actors such as Ted Levine and Tom Noonan (look, dueling serial killers from the Hannibal Lecter Charm School!) give us thumbnail sketches of characters whose backstories may be inferred from other films. Colm Meaney, whose versatility can been seen in low comedy and high drama, has the toughest assignment; trying to flesh out his character with the proper venality and villainy while trying not to chew the scenery with his dialogue. His performance in the pilot episode strikes a few discordant notes but I feel that there is ample room for this character to grow on me, and the audience.

All in all, I’m a great deal more optimistic that you and I could be talking about this show for a TAD longer than … what was that other one? Person of Some But Not Particularly Compelling Interest? What stood out to you about this first installment of Hell On Wheels, Nik?

Nikki: And… I really have nothing more to say. Chris covered it all, thanks, Chris! I need you to co-blog with me more often. It would certainly save my wrists a lot of strain. ;)

But seriously, when Ted Levine was on the screen, it took about a minute before I said, “Oh my god, that voice… is that Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs? And from that point on I was really creeped out by him. (Not as creeped out as I am by American Horror Story, but that’s another blog…)

A few things stood out to me in this first episode, mostly in that it seemed to really be positioning itself in opposition to the overly politically correctness of TV at the moment. For one, the “Indians” were the bad guys, which we haven’t seen in a long time. Modern history tells us that the settlers invaded their lands, monetized it, pushed them off into small areas, ran roughshod over their territory and belief systems, and even (as we saw in this episode), took some of them and “saved” them by Christianizing them. In this episode, we see the natives fight back in a way they often did, but which often isn’t depicted that often anymore (unless they show them being provoked in a terrible way right before hand, and then it seems justified). As modern viewers, WE know they were provoked and had been for years by that point, but what happened in that scene was shocking. And realistic.

However, it’s that same daring to push the envelope of political correctness that I found irritating at times, because it was like they were purposely trying to make us go, “oooh” at home. “Hey, let’s let everyone at home know this is THE BAD GUY because he makes racist remarks!” So Ted Levine’s character asks Bohannon if he can handle “niggers” and Colm Meaney’s character is looking at a map and just throws the word “Chink” in there. It actually had no bearing on the sentence before or after it, nor did they discuss bringing in Asians to work on the railroad. He just said, “Hm… might be a good job for the CHINKS.” And I found that really annoying. If you’re going to push the envelope, do it in a convincing way, and don’t use it as shorthand to let us know This Guy Is Evil.

But that’s a pretty small nitpick, because as I said in my opening, I felt they really fleshed out these characters – shorthand notwithstanding – and made me care about them from the outset, which is a very difficult thing for a pilot to achieve.

Chris: Very good points, Nikki. I agree that parts of this episode felt very much like a work in progress, as the writers and showrunners sought to lay out the period elements, introduce the characters quickly, set the tone and explain both the over-arching plot (revenge, redemption, greed, rapacious development, survival of the fittest) and episodic storyline (Man on a Mission, government support for railroad building, freed slaves struggling to make their way in the post-Civil-War era and people of various types seeking their fortune over the horizon). This is a lot to juggle when you’re also trying to pull in viewers and hold them for this hour of television and many more to come. I would always rather see ambition go through its growing pains than be fed the same ol’, same ol’ in almost any medium.

The useful thing about the Western tropes that were on display in the premiere is how relevant and timely they are in today’s world. Let’s see: man dealing with personal tragedy struggling to come to terms with his irretrievably broken world? Check. Citizens of all stripes trying to understand the New World Order in the wake of national trauma? Check. And, desire for a decent life and upward mobility causing people to clash with one another while capitalism churns their lives out like sausage? Sadly, check. Over-reaching on my part to read too much into a primetime drama on cable television? Quite possibly, check. Sorry ‘bout that!

For all its flaws, there’s a lot to like in Hell On Wheels. Little details such as the type of weaponry Bohannon uses and what it tells the discerning eye about him. The “Magic Lantern Show” put on by the Irish immigrant brothers and the power that photographic images could have on people so far from the people and places of importance to them. The contrast to be drawn between the fully detailed railroad car that serves as “Doc” Durant’s office and sleeping quarters and the rude canvas and plank abodes for Bohannon and others. Bits of information about the massive undertaking that was the Transcontinental Railroad and the way in which its construction irrevocably altered the lives of its labor force and the land it crossed, and the conflict it engendered with Native Americans and settlers all along its path. For the facts on this era, I highly recommend Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It In The World: The Men Who Built The Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869. For a glimpse of the mythic and mundane characters who were swept along in its wake, I hope we’ll have Hell On Wheels to drop in on Sunday nights for some time to come. See you next week, Nik!

Nikki: Excellent points, Chris, and I too really enjoyed the “Irishman’s Movie Night” scene. It really brought home how terrible it must be to be away from home, and how tough these people were. They had the courage to leave their homes and build a new land, and they were willing to eschew property, food, steady income, and most of all, personal hygiene, to accomplish that. While I felt like Colm Meaney’s Big Speech at the end was a tad overwrought, I still backed up the PVR and watched it more than once just to really take in the grandeur of it. Meaney delivered the speech like he was performing on stage, and I felt like the artifice was intentional, almost like a narration of what we just saw and what we were about to see. I enjoyed that moment a lot.

Other things to note:
• The prescience of the line, “I fear this cough will be the death of me.”
• I really enjoyed the use of anachronistic music in the very beginning, as we first saw the settlement where they were working on the railroad. It was totally not of its time, and yet worked beautifully.

I’m definitely looking forward to next week’s! And maybe we can get in some more potshots at The Killing.


Page48 said...

I would gladly sacrifice whatever future "The Killing" may have, in favour of a single new episode of "Rubicon". Take that, AMC!

Batcabbage said...

Well, Nik and Chris, I'm glad you two are blogging on a show once more. I never got into Person of Blah, but read the blogs anyway because they were by the two of you.

I was at first dubious about watching Hell on Wheels, particularly because of the Deadwood thing (Chris, I knew you were awesome from all your comments, but you have become one of my favourite people after calling Deadwood 'Shakespearian'. Seriously, it's my favourite show of all time. Yes, ahead of Lost.), but this post by the both of you has convinced me to give it a go. Buffalo Bill? Miles O'Brien? Cain, or The Guy In The Raincoat From Last Action Hero??? That's a show I can get on board with! Thanks for this, after reading your post, I'm gonna check this out.

Great post!!

EnsleyG said...

Thanks for the overview, Nikki & Chris. I've got HoW DVRed but haven't had the chance to watch it yet. I have to say you two give me more hope than some of the other reviews I've read, but to be fair most of them are comparing HoW to Deadwood, and that just isn't fair, as Chris pointed out so nicely.

After reading this, I'm really looking forward to watching the show, and God knows I'd love a well-done historical drama on my TV schedule. Thanks for the preview, guys!

humanebean said...

@Page48 - by and large, I would agree with you, as I thought that Rubicon presented something rather unique on the contemporary television landscape; a paranoid thriller more akin to films of the 70's like The Parallax View and The Conversation than more modern, edgy thrillers. However, I went from enthralled with the series and the penultimate episode to disappointed in the series finale. I would've loved more of the former, could do with less of the latter!

Page48 said...

@humanebean, I wasn't thrilled about the "Rubicon" finale, either, but finales are a tough assignment. There were many complaints about how slow and plodding the show was, but I thought it was one of the best things on TV at the time.

Ahhhhh, "The Conversation", I enjoyed that one, too.

humanebean said...

Monsieur Batcabbage! Good to see your cowled vegetation once more. Yes, I recall your expressed devotion for Deadwood, which only confirmed my admiration for your spectacular awesomeness and good taste. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on Hell On Wheels once you've had the chance to view the premiere. Fertile ground for an epic series, I feel, if well written and efficiently delivered.

Hope you enjoy the show!

humanebean said...

@Page48 Agreed - there were many complaints about Rubicon's pace and languid atmosphere. To the contrary, I feel that this was exactly what the fans of the show enjoyed about it, along with the interesting characters and strong performances. The finale however (admittedly a tricky business, particularly for a show that perhaps realizes they ain't comin' back and want to drive a stake in their ground), felt rushed, tacked on and a poor complement to what went before.

My chief regret about Rubicon's poor ratings and less than spectacular ending is that they may well discourage TV execs from greenlighting another series that dares to carve out its own ground with regard to a more measured, novelistic approach to storytelling. We may never see another The Wire, for instance. Perhaps that is fair, but what a disappointment!

Nikki Stafford said...

Batty and humanebean: I remember watching the first episode of Deadwood, then the second, and then saying it just wasn't working for me and I stopped. My husband, on the other hand, was enthralled, and he kept with it, finally saying a few weeks later, "You've GOT to come back to it... it's... I don't know how to explain it, it's... Shakespearean." And so I did. I've heard it referred to as Shakespearean so many times since, and it really is the perfect comment on it, from the epic dramatization to the soliloquies and asides to the camera, that's exactly what it is. ;)

humanebean said...

Absolutely, Nik! I imagine that there are many casual fans who may have tuned into an episode or two of Deadwood, listen to us refer to the dialogue in such lofty superlatives and say, "What, now?". Certainly, the profanity immediately jumps out at the listener, and given the rough-hewn interchanges between characters, it may seem a stretch to frame the writing as "poetic".

Any vernacular has its own rhythms, its own vocabulary and its own subtext. David Milch and the other writers on the show did an amazing job of presenting the everyday speech (and the situation-intensive speech) of these characters in a profound way. As Milch himself explained in one of the features on the Deadwood: Season 1 DVD's, mining camps brought together people of many disparate backgrounds: working-class stiffs, entrepreneurs, fortune-seekers, gold-diggers (literal and figurative), con-men, thieves, prostitutes and the people who ran them, power brokers ... and misfits at all levels of education and skill who fled from more settled societies for reasons of their own.

The blending of these different levels of literacy, experience and eloquence (and lack thereof) made for a potent mix of words and meaning. And, as Milch also pointed out, this vernacular was not those of farmers and church-goers in polite society, but rather the oral tools of those who literally raped the land to tear from it their fortune ... and wage daily battle with their competitors to stay alive long enough to see the next day so that they could do it again.

The way in which all of this is presented in Deadwood is epic in scale yet minutely detailed enough to bear repeated listening/watching to uncover subtleties that were overshadowed in the initial action and plot. Rich, resonant and rewarding, I do believe that the writing, the sets, the art direction, the performances, the production ... all deserve to be described as "Shakespearean" in orientation and quality.

My goal is to see a Deadwood rewatch on Nik at Nite somedayl!! Perhaps 2012, kids ....?

Batcabbage said...

OK, I just finished watching the pilot. I liked it. And you're both right, the inevitable comparisons to Deadwood are, well, inevitable, but it's a completely different animal.

I liked the way the pilot was laid out. The different paths of the story were all teased quite well, especially the Man Who Must Have A Name But I Can't Recall It Even Though The Show Just Finished. Loved Colm Meaney, but then I have ever since the Commitments. It's funny, but as soon as Robert Bell (the surveyor) coughed the first time, Batkitty and I both said 'Lunger' at the same time. The end of the show just intrigued me more, but I'll say no more about it, not wanting to post spoilers for anyone (like I was myself) checking this out to see if they'd like it.

My final verdict: I thought it was great. It's not Deadwood, but that's good, because it needs to be its own thing, and I think they've done that. The cast all seem great, and the story is intriguing. I"ll be watching (and reading here) every week.

@Humane: Deadwood rewatch?? HELL YES. My love of that show knows no bounds, and I'd love to discuss it here. Please can we, Nik? PLease? We'll be good, I swear!

Nikki Stafford said...

You SWEAR? Heehee... Batty made a pun. :-D

You know, I'd love to do another rewatch on here but I'm completely wiped by the Buffy one and I'm sort of looking forward to January to get some spare time in my weeks back (MAN it took a lot more out of my time than I thought it would!). However, if you guys actually wanted to host a rewatch of Deadwood and use my site as the forum for it, I'd gladly open up a night and let the two of you do it; in fact, I'd be honoured to host it. And I'd be watching right along and commenting along with you! ;) So think about it, and if you think you'd like to try something like that, shoot me an email and we can talk about it! ;)

If I had my way, this site would just become Rewatch Central. With some new shows thrown in. :) I'd get someone to host a Wire Rewatch on Mondays, you guys would do Deadwood on Tuesdays, maybe some Six Feet Under and Angel and Firefly and Sopranos and Sons of Anarchy and The Shield and and and...

Colleen/redeem147 said...

Rarely has my husband been as compelled by a show as he was Deadwood - and of course getting him the DVDs as gifts was an excuse for me to watch the whole series since I came in late.

Hell on Wheels was enjoyable and I'll watch it, but rarely if ever are there characters like Al - and to think, that's Lovejoy!

yourblindspot said...

Definitely "IN" on the Deadwood rewatch. Make it so, gents.

David G said...

Dear Nikki & Chris

given all that was said about this show (and person of interest which I love for one... Great leading actor in Mr J.C), pls look at the work that was put in down to the last detail
A. Great Casting ( again great leading actor)
B. Great Attention To detail (historic and ambiance )
C. Plot is building up and already like you mentioned leading figures in. hero Evil revenge and ideals

Dose look like a good running show to me.

Thanks for this blog and the opportunity to comment