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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Hell on Wheels: Blood, Sweat, and Tears on The Tracks, and the Telegraph

Thought it was time that I rolled in with a review of Hell on the Wheels, which rolled out its 5th episode on AMC this past Sunday.

I gotta first say that AMC has been coming up with nothing but aces with its series.  From Mad Men to Breaking Bad to The Walking Dead to The Killing and now Hell on Wheels, I'd say AMC has more top-notch series on the air than HBO and Showtime put together these days.

And Hell on Wheels is one of the best - which is to stay, every bit as good as those other four so far.  Now readers of this blog will know how partial I am t to historical dramas - Rome (HBO), The Tudors (Showtime), Mad Men (AMC), The Borgias (Showtime),  Boardwalk Empire (HBO) - and Hell on Wheels has carved out a niche all its own, in 1865, with the Civil War just over and Lincoln in his grave, as the opening episode tells us.

What I especially like about historical dramas is when they not only get the events but the technology and media of the time just right.   Hell on Wheels is about the building of the transcontinental railroad in the U.S., so it's just bursting with technology, accurately portrayed, blood, sweat and tears at every turn.

The only long distance medium at hand in those days was the telegraph, whose poles went up alongside the tracks, and kept information and money, the lifebloods of the massive construction project, flowing.  Colm Meaney puts in his best performance since Miles on Star Trek: The Next Generation (hey, another travel show) as the boss of the whole railroad operation - Thomas 'Doc' Durant - and one of my favorite parts of every episode is watching him bark messages ("STOP") to his hardworking telegraph operator.   (For more on the history and early impact of the telegraph, see my 1997 book, The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution.)  The telegraph has been called The Victorian Internet, and I call it an early form of tweeting in New New Media (2009).

Dominique McElligott is beautiful and bright as Lily Bell, whose beloved husband, surveyor for the railroad, dies at Indian hands in the first episode.   Durant certainly wants Lily - though he probably loves his railroad more - but it's likely just a matter of time before she gets together with Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount), the other fine lead of the series, a former Confederate determined to kill all of the Yankees who killed his wife in their home.

There's just one of those Yankees left, at this point, and it will be interesting to see whether he remains elusive for the entire season or series, or meets his demise sooner.  One of many interesting stories, subtle and powerful, that keep this railroad of a series and its viewers stoked.

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