TV Review: Hell on Wheels

The Western is making a comeback, but it's not your dad's Western.

Once the staple of television, the Western fell out of favor in the late 1960s. By the early 1970s most of them had been ridden out of town on a rail.

According to Wikipedia, 1968 was the last season a new Western debuted on television. Parental advocacy groups, dead-set against them because they considered them too violent for TV, killed them off one by one.

Old School

In today's world where violence is pretty much a part of the most popular video games, movies, and television shows, that seems laughable in its naiveté. If you watch an old episode of The Virginian or High Chaparral, you'll probably scratch your head in bewilderment at the violence label that got them canceled at the height of their popularity. Bonanza got the axe in 1973, and the venerable Gunsmoke in 1975, but they live on, and are apparently quite popular, in reruns on several cable outlets.

The hybrid Westerns that filled the gap after the purge -- shows like the touchy-feely Little House on the Prairie, the modern western McCloud, the steampunk western Wild, Wild West, the martial art western Kung Fu, and the eco western The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams -- proves that there was still a desire for the Western. Hollywood tried to fill that gap by producing westerns with a gimmick.

A whole generation or two grew up without watching Westerns. Is it any wonder that the western genre in fiction shrunk more every year?

From the 1990s to the early 2000s, a few Westerns were sent out into the world to try to build an audience. Walker Texas Ranger did quite well, but most failed. A few like The Young Riders lasted a couple of seasons. Then along came Lonesome Dove, and that was a godsend to the Western genre.

New Sensibility

Joss Whedon's Firefly, a Western set in outer space, came along in 2002 and made the Western cool again. More TV movies were made and did well. Then, in 2010, Justified, and FX production, hit the small screen.

Justified is about a U.S. Marshal who would be right at home in an old-fashioned Western movie with his "he pulled first" attitude. The only thing is this series is set in modern rural Kentucky. Fans don't care. I think this series met the hunger for Western stories about mythic heroes, and it made new fans as well -- even though those fans might not realize they're watching what amounts to a Western.

True Western Roars Onto TV

Then in 2008, Joe and Tony Gayton created Hell on Wheels. It subsequently sold to AMC who debuted it in 2011. The show is aptly named because it's a Hell on Wheels thrill ride of retribution, redemption, betrayal, revenge, ruthless ambition, and every emotion you can name.

The cast includes, among other talents, Anson Mount is Cullen Bohannon, the Confederate soldier seeking revenge; Colm Meaney is a railroad barren; and Common is a former slave locked into a life of violence. The acting is superb. You end up hating the bad guys and rooting for haunted Mr. Bohannon.

This American Western series, written by Jeremy Goldabout, is about the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad across the United States, and follows the Union Pacific Railroad and the people who worked to build it -- surveyors, laborers, prostitutes, mercenaries, railroad men, and other camp followers -- but it's primarily about Bohannon, the former Confederate soldier who signs on as foreman and chief engineer on the railroad. Bohannon is as ruthless as the men he hunts, the Union soldiers who murdered his wife and young son during the Civil War.

Takeaway Truth

Hell on Wheels is a no-holds-barred cable show that's probably not suitable for children. It's gripping and suspenseful, and some scenes just about break your heart. If you haven't seen it before, the first 2 seasons are on Netflix so watch it today.

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