Hell on Wheels

I startled myself when I did a little stock-taking this morning and realized that I had seen (and written about) close to 500 westerns since 2007. The undertaking began as research for a screenplay I’m working on, but ended up being what I hope will be my third book. (My second, Chain of Fools: Silent Comedians and Their Legacy from Nickelodeons to Youtube will be out in September 2012). I mention this not to boast, but to declare my bona fides for the review I’m about to unleash. The film-watching junket, two fact-finding trips to Wyoming, Colorado and Utah I took with my ex several years ago, and copious historical reading on the period collectively embolden me to assert that I’ve come to know a little something about westerns and the historical Old West over the past few years. And that’s why I’m quite comfortable informing you that, despite all the positive hooplah you may have seen in the press, Hell on Wheels (which premiered on AMC last night) is, to use an old cowboy word, fakakta.

I could tell that I would feel this way from the ad campaign. Period pieces often live or die on the strength of their art direction. There’s a couple of ways you can go, the poles of possibility being a) as realistic as possible, based on available research; or b) stylized, creating a dream-like alternate universe out of the designers’ imagination. Both, to my mind, are valid. In the run-up to last night’s premiere over the past week I read several preview/reviews in various papers and online, and frankly they all (including the NY Post’s Linda Staasi, whom I normally have great respect for) seemed to do what shitty reviewers always do — lazily parrot the press releases and the hype.  “Gritty” and “authentic” were the words that kept popping up. If I seem irrationally savage in this review, it’s for that reason. The show advertises “gritty realism.”

There is virtually NOTHING authentic about this western. From the lovingly tussled hipster-like mops of hair and well-trimmed beards on most of the male characters, to the costumes which look like someone threw a handful of mud at a men’s fashion show, to the hyperactive color correction which emphatically does not evoke the 19th century, nor any century previously known to man, the show is an exercise (and a rather lame one) in calculated style. The very premise is bullshit. The principle plot-thread is a vendetta by an ex-Confederate officer (Anson Mount) against the men who raped and killed his wife during the war. This is not “authentic”; this is the plot of every spaghetti western, and a plot I’ve always hated at that. How can you like or relate to a man who spends every minute of the story killing people? I don’t call that the hero; I call that a “murderer”. And the opening scene, wherein Mount’s character “Bohannon”, shoots a priest point blank  in a confessional is lifted whole cloth from a dozen spaghetti westerns. And this of course is why he is dressed in that preposterous spaghetti western costume, which you will search a million years in vain to ever find in a period photograph.  What the hell is authentic about that?

I suppose the “authentic” part is supposed to be the representation of the series’ setting, the floating encampment of workers which followed the progress of the Union Pacific railroad from East to West. A newspaper editor dubbed this motley assortment of laborers, whores and other hangers-on “Hell on Wheels”, and I suppose some used this derogatory nickname to describe it from a distance. But I can assure you that no one ever used it as a place name, as Colm Meaney’s Snidely Whiplash-esque villain character did on the show last night: “I’ll be back in a few weeks. I have to go to Hell on Wheels”. As though it were an incorporated township, five miles away from East Hell on Wheels. And don’t get me started on the anachronistic, historically inaccurate  racial and sexual attitudes written into the dialogue. Or the self-consciously hip music on the soundtrack, which grates like fingernails on a chalkboard. This isn’t a western, it’s a cologne commercial.

If you want to watch an authentic western television series, watch Deadwood. If you want to watch one that’s even a smidgen more compelling or realistic than Hell on Wheels, watch F Troop. Next Sunday, after Walking Dead, we will be switching our television off.

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