Binge Watchin' TV Review: Hell On Wheels
Welcome to Binge Watchin,’ where we take a look at some of the best TV shows available on streaming or disc that have a great catalogue of seasons to jump into and get sucked into the beautiful bliss of binge watching! From crime, action, comedy, drama, animation, etc., we’ll be evaluating an assortment of shows that will hopefully serve as a gateway to your next binge experience.
Series: Hell On Wheels
Number of Seasons: 5 (57 episodes)
What’s the show about?
The story of the building of the Trans-Continental Railroad that connected the United States following the Civil War, Hell on Wheels centers on the men and women who helped forge those tracks. Black, White, Asian, or Native, the people who lived in the mobile town of Hell on Wheels came from around the globe to be a part of history. At the center of it all is Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a Confederate soldier on the hunt for the killer of his wife and son. Along the way, Bohannon discovers more than he bargained for as the railroad becomes a major part of his destiny.
Why should I watch it?
Do you remember a short-lived television show called Deadwood? David Milch's HBO series was a violent, gritty, and profane western unlike anything ever put on television before or since. It has been a long time since the days when every network on TV aired at least a handful of westerns like Bonanza, Maverick, Have Gun Will Travel, and Rawhide. Westerns cost a lot to produce and don't always gain a wide audience. Hell on Wheels is a prime example. With stellar production values and a great cast of underrated talent, the AMC series never really lived up to the viewer numbers it's pilot gained. At the time, it debuted to the biggest audience aside from the debut of The Walking Dead. Despite diminishing ratings, AMC kept the show on for five seasons and allowed creators Joe and Tony Gayton to finishing chronicling their tale.
Set between 1865 and 1869, Hell on Wheels transformed from a revenge tale following Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon as he tried to find his wife and child's murderer into a look at a very underseen period in American history. Film has not spent a lot of time surrounding the making of the American railroad but Hell on Wheels does so while mixing in contemporary themes about race, sex, and politics. Still, you come for the guns and fights and this show delivers. There are a lot of elements of standard westerns on display here but it is the scene-chewing that keeps you watching. Anson Mount is excellent as the stoic and emotionally crippled Bohannon, but the supporting players really make this series shine.
Featuring a cast that includes veterans like Colm Meaney (CON AIR, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Tom Noonan, Christopher Heyerdahl, Virginia Madsen, and Wes Studi along with newer talent like Common, Dominique McElligott, Robin McLeavy, and Kasha Kropinski, Hell on Wheels looks at every facet of the railroad life. From the crooked head of the Union Pacific, Thomas Durant, to the malicious and evil Thor "The Swede" Gunderson, there is no shortage of characters to root for and against on this show. While the series did air on AMC, it managed to push the limits of basic cable in terms of violence, sex, and language but never to a point that made it inaccessible for wider audiences like Deadwood. This was no sanitized vision of the 19th century and you truly feel the plight of every character as the seasons moved on.
The first season set up the series and introduced us to the various factions at play on the show (check out standout episode "Timshel"), but it was the third season where everything began to fall into place. Bohannon's quest for vengeance became a secondary plot element and the series focused on the building of the railroad and what it took to deal with the natural elements as well as the infighting within the town itself. The struggle between Bohannon and Durant was never better than it was in the third season which also boasts some of the most beautiful landscape shots I have seen on the small screen.
Hell on Wheels is not Deadwood, not by a longshot, but if you are looking for a series that will allow you to invest in a cast of characters and know there is a finite ending to be reached, this is a series for you. Clocking in at just under sixty episodes, Hell on Wheels is an easy and worthwhile binge that actually works well thanks to the heavily serialized storytelling. Each season has a natural break in timeline which allows you an easy point to take some trips to the bathroom, but you will quickly come back and rejoin the series in progress. There is a nice balance on this series between fiction and history which had me going to the internet regularly to learn about various characters on the show and what they did in real life. If Hell on Wheels does anything well it is the fact that it opened up my eyes to several things about American history I never knew about.