Describing Hell on Wheels as "Revenge in the mud" makes it sound a lot more enjoyable than it is. AMC's sprawling but heavy-handed attempt to revive and redefine the Western (a newly hot TV-development trend) is solemn business indeed, with precious little wit or originality. (It premieres Sunday at 10/9c.)
Set in the uncivilized wilds of a post-Civil War America described as an "open wound," this dreary wallow in nihilism seems to fancy itself the second coming of Deadwood, as it depicts a squalid settlement alongside the under-construction Union Pacific Railroad. Hucksters and whores coexist with corrupt politicians and rapacious tycoons, as well as noble natives, self-righteous ex-slaves and sentimental Irish immigrant brothers to keep us all too aware of the show's socially conscious and groaningly obvious agenda. Everyone from antihero to villain seems more a type than a fully fleshed-out or truly colorful character, so we might as well call this one Driftwood.
The grim, morally ambiguous center of Wheels is occupied by grizzled Confederate War vet Cullen Bohannon (a glowering Anson Mount, who could be an ancestor of Person of Interest's whispery Jim Caviezel/Reese). Bohannon is on a crusade of bloody vengeance, seeking out the Union soldiers responsible for the murder of his wife. He finds work with unscrupulous railroad boss "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney, who only lacks mustaches to twirl in his hammy mendacity), a blowhard who actually crows out loud at one point, "What is a drama without a villain? And what is the building of this grand road if not a drama?" And where is his off switch?
Durant also gets to deliver a preposterously over-the-top soliloquy that gives the series its promotional tag line: "Blood will be spilled. Lives will be lost. Fortunes will be made. Men will be ruined." And he goes on: "There will be betrayal, scandal and perfidy of epic proportion, but the lion shall prevail." And that's just in the first episode! (I've seen five so far, and I'd be lying if I said it grew on me.)
AMC enjoyed its first dramatic breakthrough with the Emmy-winning Western miniseries Broken Trail, so it's no surprise to see the network give the genre another crack. But Trail had emotional range and a bittersweet grandeur — and tremendous performances by Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church, among others — whereas Wheels just feels like a hell of a long, glum slog.
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A rundown of more weekend highlights:
Pick of the night: The return of Fox's Fringe (9/8c) was delayed a week by the thrilling Game 7 finish of the World Series, but the episode manages to hit an emotionally fraught home run, with Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) finally back in the flesh, a "scientific anomaly" (Walter's words) confounding a Fringe team that no longer recognizes him. "If I'm not supposed to be here, than how am I back?" Peter wonders, and that's an excellent question for all of us to ponder. But first, the team must deal with another of those pesky shape-shifters with the creepy see-through skin, targeting former Massive Dynamics scientist Malcolm Truss (Arye Gross), a specialist in cellular regeneration and replication.
As Walter (the wonderful John Noble) looks into the eyes of the man who could be the son he lost 25 years ago, destroying two worlds in the process, and Malcolm considers the effects of his own experiments, we are reminded again of William Bell's cautionary philosophy: "Some things are not ours to tamper with. Some things are God's." If that's not classic sci-fi, I don't know what is.
Speaking of TV fantasy, this season's fairy-tale mini-trend just might be a keeper. NBC's Grimm (9/8c) got off to a stronger than expected start last Friday, and if it holds up as well in the second week as ABC's Once Upon a Time has on Sundays, that would be an unexpectedly pleasant surprise for NBC. This week's episode, cheekily titled "Bears Will Be Bears," deals with a home invasion that reveals a family's bizarre history. Could porridge be involved?
So what else is on? ... Are there any skeletons Nikita (The CW, 8/7c) isn't excavating from its various closets this season? Good-guy CIA analyst Ryan (Noah Bean) re-enters the picture, having discovered damaging intel on Oversight from prison. Which means Nikita and Michael must break him out before Amanda and Oversight get their claws into him. ... The PBS Arts Fall Festival heads to the Blue Ridge Mountain for Give Me the Banjo (check local schedules), in which narrator Steve Martin — who plays a mean banjo himself — traces the 300-year history of the instrument through folk, country, bluegrass, the minstrel show, ragtime and jazz. ... Who's in the mood for Bad Sex on a Friday night? This new Logo docu-series (9/8c), which sounds like a Non-Celebrity Sex Rehab, features sex-pert Christopher Donaghue leading 10 people through a two-month program of sex therapy, confronting issues from promiscuity to frigidity.
Pick of the night: MTV's True Life (6/5c) gets topical with a new installment titled "I'm Occupying Wall Street," following three young people who join the protest in New York's Zuccotti Park.
With all the ingredients for a classic "based on a true story" Lifetime movie, The Pastor's Wife (9/8c) stars Rose McGowan in the title role as the prime suspect in the shotgun murder of her Tennessee minister husband (Stargate SG-1's Michael Shanks), who's apparently not as squeaky clean as he looked. ... If your taste runs to the more wholesome, Hallmark Channel kicks off its bounty of holiday movies with the four-hour Love's Christmas Journey (8/7c), featuring Ernest Borgnine as a "mysterious man in red" who comes to the rescue of a young widow and her sheriff brother's family at Christmastime.
Bringing a cult-comedy vibe to Saturday Night Live (NBC, 11:30/10:30c) in his hosting debut, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Charlie Day reunites with his Horrible Bosses co-star Jason Sudeikis. Maroon 5 is musical guest for their third time.
Pick of the night: Another pivotal episode of Showtime's riveting psychological/terrorist thriller Homeland (10/9c), in which the cat-and-mouse chemistry between Claire Danes and Damian Lewis reaches reckless new highs. Carrie (Danes) figures she's finally got a way to expose Sgt. Brody (Lewis) as the sleeper terrorist she's convinced he is, and arranges a polygraph test for anyone — including herself and mentor Saul — who had anything to do with last week's debacle involving Brody's Middle Eastern torturer. Brody's already under plenty of stress, as he reunites with his former unit (not all of them buddies) for a memorial to the Marine who died in captivity alongside Brody. The suspenseful ambiguity throughout is so gripping.
In a rare stop-and-smell-the-roses moment on AMC's emotionally harrowing The Walking Dead (9/8c), Hershel reminds Sheriff Rick that "It's good to pause for an occasional reminder" of what makes life worth living, even amid a zombie pandemic. While Shane stews in guilt over what went down at the high school, Glenn realizes a nerd's dream come true during a supply run to an abandoned pharmacy. Back on the farm, a disturbing discovery in one of the farm's wells leads to one of the series' most disgusting moments yet, and that's saying something.
In my favorite, and certainly most romantic, episode to date of ABC's breakout Sunday fable Once Upon a Time (8/7c), we get some juicy back story for Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), first seen as a feisty vagabond thief in the woods, one of the Evil Queen's "Most Wanted," when she encounters Prince Charming (Josh Dallas). The rest is fairy-tale history, including an encounter with some greedy, grody trolls. These flashbacks give urgency to the vigil at comatose John Doe's hospital bedside, as little Henry contrives to bring Snow's alter ego Mary Margaret and her unwitting soulmate together. It's a big improvement over last week's perilously campy outing.
The crisis of faith that dominates this season of Dexter (Showtime, 9/8c) intensifies in the wake of last week's abrupt climactic shooting. It's a real "fork in the road" for Dexter (Michael C. Hall), who has to decide if he can let go of the darkness and embrace forgiveness. Easier said than done, even when Harry's Ghost is there urging him to see the light. Also struggling with his conscience: Doomsday henchman Travis (Colin Hanks), so torn up over the suffering of their latest victim he may yet defy the apocalyptic warnings of Professor Gellar (Edward James Olmos): "Do what you're told or you're going to be destroyed with the rest of the scum."
Boasting the weekend's most impressive cast, the Masterpiece Contemporary drama Page Eight (PBS, check local schedules) stars the witty Bill Nighy as a melancholy long-time analyst in British Intelligence who weighs his career, his allegiances and his bond with an enigmatic neighbor (Rachel Weisz), when he's presented with a damning document implicating the prime minister (Ralph Fiennes) in keeping secrets with the U.S. regarding torture. This has the feel of top-shelf John le Carre-style literature, written with droll cynicism by David Hare and exquisitely acted, with luminaries including Judy Davis and Michael Gambon in the supporting cast. A quietly absorbing elegy for old-school spooks, Page Eight bristles with jazzy intelligence.
Not available for preview, but very likely to pop in the ratings, USA Network's Certain Prey (9/8c) could provide for NCIS star Mark Harmon what the Jesse Stone movies have been for Tom Selleck: a lucrative new franchise. Based on the best-selling series of novels by John Sandford, Prey casts Harmon as Lucas Davenport, Minneapolis' maverick deputy police chief, tracking the bloody murder spree of two deadly women. Given the popularity of TV procedurals in general, and the ubiquity of NCIS repeats on USA's schedule, this seems as close to a certain hit as you could imagine.
So what else is on? ABC's Pan Am (10:01/9:01c) takes the ugly racial temperature of the times in 1963 when naïve Laura (Margot Robbie) is drawn to an African-American sailor (Friday Night Lights' Gaius Charles) en route to the States. ... After last week's disappointing non-elimination leg of CBS' The Amazing Race (8/7c), a Double U-Turn looms this week. Will anyone take strategic advantage of this obstacle to block one of the front-runners? ... Name that voice: Glee's Emmy-winning Jane Lynch guests on Fox's The Simpsons (8/7c), as Homer's gung-ho but ultimately evil new assistant, who takes over his job. On Family Guy (9/8c), Ryan Reynolds guest-voices as the actual Ryan Reynolds, who comes to Quahog and becomes obsessed with Peter. ... The Smithsonian Channel's provocatively titled five-part series Trashopolis (8/7c) goes under the surface of major cities — first up, New York — to reveal the role of trash and garbage in creating Manhattan's infrastructure and parks. ... Speaking of trash, The Real Housewives of Atlanta (Bravo, 10/9c) begins a new season of outrageous shenanigans. ... Last week, PBS' America in Primetime (check local schedules) showed us how the role of women on TV had changed over the years. This week, it's the men's turn. ... OWN's Our America With Lisa Ling (10/9c) anticipates Veterans' Day with a special report, "Invisible Wounds of War," in which she profiles veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. ... National Geographic Channel reconstructs The Last Days of Osama Bin Laden (9/8cs) in a special report by journalist Peter Bergen, who investigates how the U.S. pulled off the surprise attack. ... BET's second annual Black Girls Rock! special (8/7c) salutes accomplished African-American women in all fields, with honorees including Angela Davis, Shirley Caesar, Taraji P. Henson and Tatyana Ali. Among the performers: Mary J. Blige and Jill Scott.