American Movie Classics, already rocking three of the best shows on TV right now—“Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead”—pushes its luck by jumping on yet another genre with the neo-spaghetti-Western “Hell on Wheels.” If the show seems somehow less than the sum of its parts at this early stage, perhaps it’s just that it’s got so much to live up to when compared to AMC’s other offerings.Dark, bloody and self-consciously stylish—as we’ve come to expect of AMC on Sunday night—“Hell on Wheels” takes us to post-Civil War Nebraska. Our black-hatted antihero is Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount from Crossroads and In Her Shoes). Cullen’s a surly, frequently silent former Confederate soldier looking for revenge against the Union troops who raped and killed his wife. (He should team up with Emily VanCamp from ABC’s “Revenge.”) On the hunt for bad dudes, our killer cowboy stumbles into Hell on Wheels, an itinerant town full of whores, whiskey merchants and laborers following the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad. There, he joins forces with an angry freed slave (rapper-turned-actor Common) and looks for people to shoot.It’s an interesting setting for a Western. Few movies have concentrated on the building of the railroad (other than backdrop). Here, we get a crash-course on all the seedy backroom politics, courtesy of one Thomas “Doc” Durant (played by Colm Meaney, Chief O’Brien on “ST:TNG”). Durant was a real-life financier and railroad baron who united the Union and Central Pacific railroads, bribed a few senators and gave birth to the Crédit Mobilier scandal. (Think of him as the Kenneth Lay of the 1870s.) Here, he’s a seedy, self-aware evil businessman, prone to paraphrasing Daniel Day-Lewis’ ruthless capitalist speeches from There Will Be Blood.There’s also the recently widowed wife of a railroad surveyor (Dominique McElligott), a sincere Southern preacher (the excellently cast Tom Noonan), some naive Irish businessmen (Ben Esler, Philip Burke) and a bunch of restless Native Americans. It’s clear—although subplots have yet to fully manifest—that “Hell on Wheels” is aiming for the epic, ensemble-cast feel of HBO’s late, lamented “Deadwood.” That’s probably a good direction to go in, given that Cullen’s revenge scheme seems a weak peg on which to hang an entire series. (He’s only kicking around Hell on Wheels because he doesn’t know the name of the guy he’s supposed to kill.) But “Deadwood” is a mighty high-water mark to meet.Using the same washed-out amber palette as AMC’s other Sunday night fare, “Hell on Wheels” looks slick (if overly familiar at this point). The blunt acknowledgment of racism in the show’s dialogue will either prove to be its boldest move or biggest bone of contention. (Here’s hoping Common’s vibrant Elam Ferguson continues to develop.) Right now, the show’s characters are in desperate need of a third dimension. Anson’s grizzled gunslinger might as well be called “Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name.” And Meaney’s chief villain might as well have “Chief Villain” tattooed across his forehead. The machinery is in place all right. But the show’s creators are going to have to provide a little more fuel if they wanna get this thing going full-steam.
“Hell on Wheels” airs Sunday nights at 8 p.m. on AMC.