Even though the most cynical of critics will tell you that the western is dead, cable viewers and more importantly, AMC thought differently. The cable network that successfully launched Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead gave Hell on Wheels a second season to continue its tale of the Transcontinental Railroad during the Reconstruction era of the United States.
Hell on Wheels fit right in with AMC’s other original scripted dramas, featuring a complex knot of longer, drawn-out serialized narratives instead of quicker, stand-alone stories. It looks at the massive good and bad that the train brought including the greed and corruption; it sheds light on the less than smooth transition for the emancipated slaves and the ever-changing climate of the immigrant.
With the corpses still warm from the Civil war, Hell on Wheels follows specifically Anson Mount who stars as Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier looking to avenge his wife’s murderers while working as a foreman on the railroad, a cold-hearted industrialist played by Colm Meaney and Elam Ferguson, a freed slave played by rapper/actor Common. Other prominent actors include Dominique McElligott (The Philanthropist), Tom Noonan (Heat), Ben Esler (The Pacific), Philip Burke (Law & Order) and Eddie Spears (Into the West).
Hell on Wheels was coupled with The Walking Dead on Sunday nights and performed well in its first season. The pilot episode tallied 4.4 million viewers on November 4, AMC’s second highest debut (to The Walking Dead) and since then leveled out to two and three million average viewers each week. The series has three remaining episodes in its first season with the final and tenth episode, “God of Chaos” airing January 15.
What will be more interesting to see is if AMC continues to pair Hell on Wheels with The Walking Dead, making for a zombie-western double feature for the fall and winter Sunday nights next year. Who knew that AMC would become the new network for genre series? I’ll believe it when I see them working on a science fiction and/or fantasy series. And since we’re voicing our secret desires, I’d throw good money down to see a martial arts series. Just saying.
That’s the kind of hope that AMC gives when they announce a new series. Conspiracy thriller Rubicon was an excellent series too (predating Showtime’s excellent Homeland), but it wasn’t strong enough to be a lead in for Mad Men, nor would have Mad Men been a strong enough draw in the casual viewers like The Walking Dead has. That little zombie series could be the chicken the keeps laying golden eggs.
If not, then the true test of Hell on Wheels is whether it can be moved to its own to help launch another series down the road. The network has just one more year to milk Breaking Bad; Mad Men can’t run forever either. Something must be able to fill that spring or summer gap in 2013. Of course, we don’t know what they’re planning down the road, but the continued success of the western is a pivotal series for AMC because it needs to prove it can move forward without its two critical darlings (MM & BB). The Walking Dead may be healthy enough to continue launching new series in the fall, but AMC would need Hell on Wheels to do the same if they separate the two genre shows.
AMC is still learning the growing pains of being a successful cable network and is dabbling in lower cost reality shows like Kevin Smith’s Secret Stash and experiments like The Talking Dead to expand the potential for advertising dollars as each of AMC’s original shows can become a 90 minute experience as opposed to 60 minutes. We just might see similar shows like Talking Mad and Talking Bad before too long and if Hell on Wheels continues to grow, Talking Hell. Bravo has a similar success with Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen, interacting with live viewers and those on Twitter and Facebook.
Like it or not, Hell on Wheels is a more important series than what AMC would probably be willing to admit, especially when considering the health and future of the network. Keep it in the fall and solidify that pairing with the Dead. Pull it apart to launch other series and the network rolls the dice on how much dead or alive the western remains to be.