Trying to keep this blog active is much harder than it looks, so sorry about the lack of regular updates, folks The last post was a bit random, but it was really kind of a writing exercise.
I was just sitting at Starbucks, working on a script, and got stuck. So I glanced around the room, and found two people engaged in a conversation right next to me; I decided, why the hell not, I'll write about them, and impose what I imagined was going on. I'm not too confident in my writing skills, so it was practice for me, and something I posted here for fun. I have another similar exercise, but I'll post that a little later.
What I thought I'd do today was write about some of the TV shows I've been watching, well actually one. But I'll start off by listing some of the shows I'm watching right now e.g., Prime Suspect, Parks and Rec, Community, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Netflix), The Walking Dead, and Breaking Bad. Two of those shows are on AMC, which last night debuted an ambitious new venture into the western drama, Hell on Wheels.
Now, I'm a sucker for the western genre, or at least the modern ones. I'm of the mind that Deadwood is one the top 3 TV shows of all time. I liked 3:10 to Yuma and True Grit, and I absolutely loved Rockstar's 2010 videogame Red Dead Redemption. I can honestly say I don't know what the appeal of the western is for me, though. Maybe the vision of the open prairie, the sense of discovery in a harsh and unknown land. Maybe it's the idea of a world with few laws, and few honest men to uphold them. Maybe it's the sense of danger, the risks and rewards of one's actions, where anything can happen. Or maybe it's the impending conflict between one's right to live a life as one pleases against the struggling growth of nation finding it's identity. Whatever it is, I can't really get enough of it, so you can understand I was eagerly waiting for HoW's premiere.
*Spoilers ahead* What I watched last night was kind of a sloppy mess, a show being held up by actors much better than the material their scripts contained. The dialogue was lazy; the writers intent on telling us everything up front, and leaving us with hardly anything to look forward to. We learned of our gunslinger protagonist, Cullen Bohannan played by Anson Mount, that he was a confederate soldier who fought for 'honor', a former slave owner who later freed those slaves one year before the civil war after being enlightened by his northerner wife, and now bent on revenge for her murder, all in less than an hour. We are never shown this by example or subtlety, we are told blatantly, in the dialogue.
After that, we are then introduced, one by one, to all of the major characters quickly and systematically.
Elum, played by Common, is part of the "cut" crew, a team made up of other former slaves whose job is the back-breaking labor of digging up the ground in the front of the line. He is angry and frustrated by how little has changed since the Civil War. That's all we know about him. With all the information we got about Bohannon, we get close to nothing about Elum. Common isn't left with much to work with, and it doesn't help that he possess little if any on-screen charisma.
The only motivation for Elum's character is his hatred for Ted Levine's portrayal of (as far as I know) a nameless man, one who is in charge of the hiring and management of what seems to be the entire road crew collective. It doesn't help Mount or Common that he steals every scene he is in, overshadowing their performances. Sure, he is a racist self-hating scumbag, but Levine seemed to embody his character with depth and meaning, giving him room for a possible story arc. It's really too bad the writers killed him off at the end. His character provided a constant thorn in Elum and Bohannon's side for the short time he was there. At the end of that scene, I wondered what was left for our heroes.
There is also Lilly, the wife (?) and partner of Robert Bell, the road survey team leader working for the railroad company owned by Thomas Durant. Oh, her lover happens to also be ill, coughing into her face as they attempt to share a quiet moment in an picturesque hillside that is remorsefully described by her as "bewitching", How tragic. Why bother though, he's just going to get killed anyway, leaving me wondering why the writers needed him to be sick in the first place. It was of course a lame device to make him too slow to escape the impending attack from the 'savages'. As he lays dead, she grabs the maps and runs. Um, why would she find these maps so valuable now? Her boyfriend, along with the rest of the survey team, was just killed, and she just had an arrow shot through her hand and into her shoulder? To what purpose would saving these maps provide? Is Durant keeping something or someone hostage? I couldn't tell you.
And finally, we have the only character based on an actual human being, Thomas 'Doc' Durant, played by the consistently excellent Colm Meaney. Unfortunately, Meaney is given little to work with, confining his character to be just shy of the curly mustache villain. Durant, the business mogul hired to build this half of the Transcontinental Rail Road, cares nothing for his workers and his employees, only concerned with how much he can milk out the the government's deal to pay him, by the mile. Remember what I said about how the writers lacked subtlety and nuance? They thought it would be wise for Durant to recite a bloated monologue at the end, naming himself the villain. You know, just in case we couldn't figure that all out. The whole thing stank of some desperate homage to Ian McShane's monologues as Al Swearengen of Deadwood. I have no doubt Meaney would have been able to pull it off, if his lines were written with as much flair and complexity.
With all this said, I'm going to stick with HoW for at least another episode. I really do want the show to succeed, it still has so much potential. I hope that Mounts is given opportunity to be more than a brooding, dark anti-hero archetype, and I hope Common can fit his stride once his character is fleshed out. As disappointed as I am with the constraints put on Meaney's performance, and the wasted talent of Levine, I still hope for the best is yet to come. Westerns seem to be a dying breed, and I would hate for it to vanish with this. This show needs to make it, for itself and it's creators, and for AMC in general.