AMC saddles up a western with 'Hell on Wheels,' stays true to network's lineup of deep, dark dramas
BEVERLY HILLS - AMC officials say the network was looking for a Western.
Writers Tony and Joe Gayton say they were hankering to try a Western.
Actor Anson Mount says he was thinking maybe he should shake up his career by doing a Western.
You can see where this is going.
On Nov. 6, AMC will premiere "Hell on Wheels," a Western written by the Gaytons and starring Anson Mount, along with Common, Colm Meaney and a host of other characters.
Like other shows in AMC's growing stable of dramas, "Hell on Wheels" is dense and sometimes dark. Its nasty characters show occasional flashes of light and its heroes have flaws. Unlike some other AMC shows, it has a considerable amount of action, as well as profanity and graphic violence.
The show is set in post-Civil War America, across the lands where the transcontinental railroad is being built.
Mount plays Cullen Bohannon, who fought for the South although he had freed his own slaves a year before the war broke out, at the urging of his Mormon wife.
His wife was killed during the war. Avenging her death is now the reason Bohannon gets up in the morning.
This quest brings him to the railroad, where he meets a cast that Tony Gayton yesterday described to TV reporters here as "Hell's Kitchen in the West."
The laborers are Irish, Italian, German and black, among other ancestries, with the common goal of making hard lives better.
Common plays Elam Ferguson, a freed slave who isn't at all happy when a former slave owner becomes his boss on the line.
But the action isn't all on the line. Meaney plays "Doc" Durant, the ruthless entrepreneur building the railroad. His pitch is that it will make America great. His real motive is that it will make him rich.
"Hell on Wheels" also shows how the railroad pushed civilization west, displacing Native Americans as it went.
"It was the beginning of greatness for this country," says Joe Gayton. "And the beginning of the end for the Indians."
As this suggests, the show aims to tell sweeping stories, and Meaney among others suggests that setting it in the past helps it raise issues that are still touchy today.
"By going back," says Meaney, "it's easier to address issues like the relationship between races - not just black and white, but Italian and Irish, for instance. You can ask big questions, like what is progress?"
No one seems daunted that Westerns have fallen out of favor over the last few decades.
"Broken Trail" was one of the channel's highest-rated specials, AMC senior vice president Joel Stillerman noted, and HBO did well with the acclaimed "Deadwood," to which "Hell on Wheels" will inevitably hear some comparisons.
"You'll see iconic Western shots, like the big panorama and the mountains," says Tony Gayton. "But we hope it's the characters that will make people want to watch."