Story first appeared in USA TODAY.
A few miles down a dirt road from a tribal casino, a lush green valley dotted with dandelions has been transformed into 1865 Nebraska.
Caked with inches-deep mud from spring rains, a tent city has sprung, populated with horse-drawn wagons, chickens, several hundred feet of railroad track to nowhere and a locomotive made from steel, Styrofoam and wood.
It's the world of AMC's Hell on Wheels, a story of greed, corruption and revenge framed by the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Premiering Sunday (10 ET/PT), the 10-episode drama is the cable network's latest twist on Westerns, after earlier success with 2006 miniseries Broken Trail. And coupled with a comeback in critically acclaimed films (True Grit, There Will Be Blood) it marks the latest chapter in an effort to revive the timeworn genre, which dominated the early days of television but has been seen only sporadically since. But old-time Westerns were both literally and figuratively black and white: Good guys against evildoers. The new model focuses on flawed antiheroes with impure motives.
Wheels spins around Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former slave owner who, just after the Civil War, finds work on a railroad crew purely to seek revenge on the former members of Gen. Sherman's army responsible for murdering his wife. Rap singer Common plays Elam Ferguson, a former slave who forms an uneasy bond with Bohannon on the prairie.
Construction of the railroad, touted as healing the rift between north and south by linking east to west, hasn't been explored much in fiction, says Tony Gayton (Faster), who created the show with his brother Joe. Their idea is to have 'hell on wheels' — that's the movable tent city — to feel like an urban development, and to juxtapose that with the big wide-open western vistas (and) the Native Americans.
Mount, a Tennessee native, says, it's not a show about the creation of a railroad, it's a show about the building of a nation. It's a group of people from different backgrounds, different cultures, different races, who have a shared dream of creating something that's seemingly impossible.
Connecting the coasts was like saying we're going to put a man on the moon, and it's not a pretty story: There's a lot of graft, a lot of corruption, a lot of hatred. Cullen is a guy who's hellbent on revenge, and he keeps losing that battle because he gets distracted by a sense of obligation and duty elsewhere.
Distinctly American themes
At the set on the grounds of the Tsuu T'ina Nation (ironic, given the scalpings in Sunday's premiere), extras clad in mud-caked canvas mingle with crew members incongruously dressed in jeans and rubber boots. One actor, dressed as a hobo, rolls a cigarette off camera. And plenty of old-timey slurs slip off tongues, from "copperheads" and "graybacks" to "darkies" and "bogtrotters." Irish, Germans and a Swede or two are part of the melting pot.
Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney) is the only character based on a historic figure, simply because "he was too good not to use. A corrupt railroad promoter who stood to profit from government subsidies, he manipulated the stock market by misleading investors about which railroad he planned to connect with. And though desperate to build the first 40 miles of track so he could begin claiming a $16,000-a-mile subsidy, he insisted on a snake-like path to make more money.
Dominique McElligott plays Lily Bell, widowed by the murder of her surveyor husband, who spends early episodes trying to survive in the wilderness. But she's not a damsel in distress. She's sort of badass. (McElligott struggled too, having spent an entire day lying in the rain and submerged in mud. The mosquitoes would come later.)
For some scenes shot at night or in bad weather, cameras roll in a former airplane hangar a few miles away, using replicas of tents and other props.
For AMC, Hell is the latest move in its strategy to develop companion series for its top movie draws: Fans of horror films marched to its biggest hit, The Walking Dead. Despite its recent success with original series.
Original programming chief Joel Stillerman says the search yielded a lot of traditional Westerns, but none had the scope and emotional intensity of Hell on Wheels. These stories have great universal themes that are distinctly American.
Executive producer Jeremy Gold says the cost of progress is very much an ongoing theme of the show, (and) the brutality of imposing civilization where it shouldn't be.
Producers and actors cite There Will Be Blood, Unforgiven and True Grit as inspirations.
Old genre, new 'flavor'
Though scarce on TV in recent years, the notion of frontier justice has been appealing to TV programmers almost since the medium started.
In the 1960s, modernism was much more in vogue, and current generations wanted to see themselves reflected on TV, and they weren't on horses. And newly available demographic data revealed that Western fans were an older crowd that was less appealing to advertisers.
And though Gunsmoke and Bonanza endured until the '70s, subsequent efforts to revive the genre were met with disdain. Brooks recalls working as a researcher for legendary NBC programmer Brandon Tartikoff, who — exasperated by relentless pitches — printed up T-shirts picturing a horse covered with an X. "They were really run out of TV," he says.
And yet struggling NBC — in a quest for something original, says the network's entertainment president Jennifer Salke — is now developing three Western-themed projects, including a drama about Dust Bowl pioneers in which a couple goes missing, and another reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with a strong female character added in. (ABC also has one in the works.)
Salke, who's looking for a postmodern version in which the setting provides a specific kind of flavor. NBC passed last spring on Reconstruction, a pilot also set just after the Civil War. But the difficulty of launching new dramas, not just at NBC, has pushed programmers to the frontier.
Writers are incredibly challenged in drama to come up with something unique that's going to excite people, Salke says. Fans of the genre will be interested, but it's her job to come up with something that's more modern and accessible and has appeal to a broader audience. If it's a doctor and family on the range, she is already asleep in her chair.
Of course, cable has the luxury of appealing to a specific niche audience. HBO's acclaimed Deadwood had a loyal following and a three-year run. And though Elmore Leonard stopped writing Westerns, his Fire in the Hole, adapted for FX's Justified, embodies the Western tradition, and they don't shy away from it, says executive producer Graham Yost. He is a marshal and he's got a star and he gets bad guys, but it's complicated because it's 2011, not 1952. Our heroes have more dimensions, flaws and foibles.
The modern-day allegory is unavoidable: Brooks says Westerns mark a pushback on the urbanization of TV" and gives voice to a populist focus on the "other America." The symbolism, says AMC's Stillerman, is almost too good to be true.