There was a time -- before the rise of original series on cable -- when television networks were terrified of period pieces. The conventional wisdom was that TV shows set in the past -- with a few notable exceptions, like "MASH" -- were a tough sell, and many period dramas, especially, drew disappointing ratings (think: "Homefront," "I'll Fly Away," "American Dreams," etc.).
With television ratings for individual programs in decline because of the expanding number of choices, cable networks began to hop on the period-drama bandwagon. HBO had "Deadwood" and "Rome." Showtime ushered in "The Tudors." And AMC hit it big with "Mad Men." Now period pieces are a popular programming pick, from HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" to ABC's "Pan Am."
But not every period drama deserves raves.
The audience already rejected NBC's "The Playboy Club" this season, and it will be interesting to see if viewers find themselves too easily falling asleep during AMC's period Western, "Hell on Wheels" (8 p.m. today). Although AMC has a reputation for making smart television for upscale audiences, even fans of quiet, introspective series like "Mad Men" and "Rubicon" may be hard-pressed to stay interested in the network's latest show.
Likely to earn the nickname "Dull on Wheels," the drama is set in 1865 during the post-Civil War construction of the first transcontinental railroad. The show moves at a glacial pace and introduces a bevy of unconnected characters. Through the first five episodes, these characters slowly begin to cross paths with the railroad as their shared commonality.
Although "Hell on Wheels" is an ensemble, it's told from the point of view of Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a Confederate soldier seeking revenge on the men who raped and murdered his wife. We meet him as he impersonates a priest in a Catholic church's confession box. How Bohannon knew his victim would wander into that particular church is a bit of a plot hole (maybe viewers are to assume he followed the guy in?).
Next, Bohannon heads west to get a job working on the railroad while he stalks his prey. Bohannon's quest appears to be one of the story engines in "Hell on Wheels," but it feels overly familiar, with the target always one step ahead, bringing to mind "The Fugitive."
Bohannon gets hired by Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meany, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine"), the greedy mastermind behind plans for a transcontinental railroad, which he designs with an eye toward maximum profit.
Elam Ferguson (the rapper Common), an emancipated biracial slave, works on the railroad and forms an uneasy relationship with Bohannon, who also bumps into brothers Sean (Ben Esler) and Mickey (Phil Burke) McGinnes, Irish immigrants and small-time businessmen.
Bohannon plays a role in rescuing Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), "the fair-haired maiden of the West," after an Indian attack.
Hell on Wheels, the name of the railroad encampment that moves continuously forward, also has its own minister, Rev. Cole (Tom Noonan), who has taken on a Christian Indian, Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears), as an assistant as the minister struggles to maintain peace between encroaching white men and the native people.
The visual look of "Hell on Wheels" brings to mind "Deadwood" -- there's mud and prostitutes aplenty -- and the writers further that comparison by giving their heavy, Meany's railroad impresario, a long soliloquy in the pilot. It's more pompous and less profane than something Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) would come up with -- and it's also not as entertaining.
"Hell on Wheels" is not a bad show, but it's also not engrossing. Through the first five episodes, the characters fail to make a strong enough impression to warrant getting on board a series that takes too long to pull out of the station.