We’ve come a long, long way from the simplicities that marked early westerns. The genre has gotten irreversibly muddied since the 1970s, in terms of both face makeup and morality. The likes of Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,’’ David Milch’s “Deadwood,’’ and Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven’’ forever ground to prairie dust our romantic illusions of the Old West, replacing them with unforgettably ugly images of inhumanity, greed, and bigotry. Cowboy president George W. Bush may have been the only one not to have noticed the shift.
The engaging new AMC series “Hell on Wheels’’ isn’t quite a revisionist western, and it probably won’t enter the TV pantheon beside the influential - if, let’s admit it, sometimes pretentious - “Deadwood.’’ Set in the 1860s, the show is a hybrid that’s dirt-caked like “Deadwood,’’ but then peopled with relatively one-dimensional characters and underexamined situations. It seems like it’s going to be a painfully realistic and probing take on the racial, gender, financial, and religious tensions of post-Civil War America, but it doesn’t quite go there, opting instead to deliver a set of more stereotypical western personalities and plots.
Still, the uneven genre identity of “Hell on Wheels,’’ which premieres on Sunday at 10 p.m. after “The Walking Dead,’’ did not stop me from enjoying the first five episodes of the season. Indeed, once a character known as the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) shows up in episode 2, with his silent-picture expressiveness and the kind of threatening presence usually found in Coen Brothers movies, I was fully invested in the show and looking forward to seeing the rest of the 10-episode season. The Swede is just the kind of twisted psycho creep you want to watch closely, the showiest bad guy in the “Hell on Wheels’’ stampede of antiheroes led by financier, swindler, and railroad builder Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney).
Created by brothers Joe and Tony Gayton, the show is set in the tent city known as Hell on Wheels that traveled along with the building of the Union Pacific Railroad as it moved westward. Amid the traveling brothels, churches, and saloons, many Irish immigrants and former slaves mix uncomfortably with war veterans and the smarmy Durant. Newly emancipated, the black men digging the railroad are nonetheless abused and underpaid by their white bosses, as if the Civil War never happened. And then everyone in this lawless morass of hostility has to contend with attacks by Native American warriors.
Anson Mount is the star of the show, as Cullen Bohannon, a very weary former Confederate soldier. He shows up at Hell on Wheels bent on revenge over the rape and murder of his wife by Union soldiers. He’s smarter, faster, and better looking than everyone around him, and you want to think he’s a kind man inside his cold fury. He freed his slaves before he had to, and, in Hell on Wheels, he slowly seems to be forging a bond with Elam Ferguson (Common), an emancipated slave. But he is a laconic Clint Eastwood type, whose true feelings are buried deep. As he kills the men who killed his wife, we can’t fully tell whether he’s getting any satisfaction.
Mount is fine in the role, with his dark brow and stiff face. “Hell on Wheels’’ might have been better with a more charismatic lead; he’s too stony for his own good. Common is fine, too, although he doesn’t project anything too much more layered than pure anger. And Meaney is tiresome as Durant, as he overplays Meaney’s sliminess. But “Hell on Wheels’’ isn’t written as a psychological study; it’s not a contemporary analysis of what fueled these men and their predatory ways. It’s a group portrait of barely civilized men. So the performances don’t need to reach the level of, say, Jon Hamm on “Mad Men.’’ Just about everything in the show is a little less than it could be, and yet “Hell on Wheels’’ is still worth following.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.