Posts Tagged ‘Pilot’

Hell on Wheels, “Pilot”

November 10, 2011

Launching into Hell on Wheels, I wasn’t especially excited. I like the idea of a railroad town as a high-concept plot device, and even though I’ve only really delved into Mad Men when it comes to AMC, I’m aware of their track record. Hell on Wheels has got guns, whores, and the exploration of an antebellum South’s race culture—what’s not to like?

Well, the same problem that plagues every pilot: set-up. We get tastes of the arcs we’ll be uncovering throughout the season (“Meridian,” and whatever that urgent telegram of Durant’s was about,) but every beat almost necessarily falls flat. I’m used to this by now with pilots, but it made me consider what the differences between the pilot for a railroad western and a somewhat more down-to-earth show like Mad Men could be.
In Hell on Wheels, we can tell from the outset that the seasonal arcs are going to carry and motivate our main characters. Bohannon’s got his revenge to seek. Durant wants money but there’s something other than government teat-sucking going on with him. I’m actually a little disappointed that Elam didn’t get any hints toward what his goal is here, because he better not just be a tag-along partner for Bohannon. Point is, we know that these people have secrets (and I’d bet that each other character will have their time to shine in turn) and those secrets are also why we watch.

A show like Mad Men, with its relatively simple pitch of “Jon Hamm works at an ad agency in the 60s,” takes the pilot in a different direction; one that I wonder whether or not would succeed with the recent glut of period piece shows. Instead of setting up mysteries, they show us a now-foreign world where an ensemble cast simply interacts with each other. Sure, everyone has their own brand of crazy, (or stolen identity,) but it’s not guiding them anywhere in the pilot. Instead, we get the little puzzle of the Lucky Strike campaign and, through that, a glimpse of why Draper is the legend everyone’s heard of.

The great thing is that Mad Men’s pilot isn’t exactly the most compelling piece of TV either. It’s a pilot: one with a clearly different method of story-telling from Hell on Wheels, but a still-developing-an-emotional-connection-to-these-characters pilot all the same.

PS Signing up for my account, I spaced on the nature of this blog and registered my typical username. This is Brian.


Pilot on Wheels

November 8, 2011

AMC’s Hell on Wheels is a show without roots – literally. Set in a moving railroad town in Nebraska, the show features characters all overtly motivated by their connection to, as well as their perception of, their individual homelands. There are the voluntary characters of Sean and Mickey, brothers who willingly left their homeland of Ireland to find fortune in the America, reminiscent of the misguided Irish who moved West in the documentary The Hard Road to Klondike. There are the displaced characters, such as the angry Elam who has been freed but cannot get back to his home and the Indian tribe who attack the railroad construction site that threatens their home. There is Doc, a character who has potential but currently lacks history and a real incentive, perhaps in part because he seems to literally live on a train, never in one place for more than a second.

And then there is Cullen Bohannon, our tragic hero who claims towards the end of the episode that his homeland is “gone.” Cullen is a man who went to war for his homeland of the South not because he wanted to keep slaves, but for the “honor” of his states. The pilot was overly dramatic and obvious at times, and although that is an inevitability with first episodes and I agree with the philosophy of giving a show ample episodes to prove itself, these unfortunate qualities were exasperated by the fact that each character had such a different homeland and past from his counterparts. Only towards the end, during the showdown between Cullen and his one armed boss, did any of the interactions between characters feel exciting.

Hell on Wheels is also somewhat inhibited by its home at AMC. Almost every review thus far has made sure to include how the show fits with its network counterparts and the overall brand of the network. How Hell on Wheels can distinguish itself as intelligent, provoking and generally viable among a lineup of other successful AMC shows remains to be seen.

Pilot – Alec Cuccia

November 8, 2011

I made the disastrous decision to read a few reviews of the Hell on Wheels pilot before I went and actually watched the show. Mostly all the reviews told me the same things: the plot was derivative, the acting was spotty, and the whole thing was just generally boring. Well, now that I’ve seen the show, I agree with all of it. The Hell on Wheels pilot bored me. If I didn’t have to watch it for class I wouldn’t have watched it all. I love Westerns, but I have a very low threshold for bad Westerns. That’s not to say that Hell on Wheels was Bad (with a capitol B), it just wasn’t good. It was muddled. It tried to weave together many different plot lines that seem wholly independent. The best shows can pull this off in a way that makes the viewer care about how and why the plot lines need to be entertwined, but I found myself asking, again and again throughout the pilot, why? Why should I care? Why does any of this matter? It was a question I couldn’t answer.

This isn’t to say the production values on the show were any short of amazing. Hell on Wheels did an excellent job in drawing me into the period in which it’s set. Maybe It’s just because 1860’s America wasn’t that long ago, but it all seemed very real to me. The set pieces, the characters all seemed like they could be quite possible. I’m unsure as to why AMC decided to mute the colors on the show so heavily though. It adds very little. The show isn’t a flashback… Were colors simply less bright 150 years ago? It’s a silly decision that screams to me that the show is trying to take itself too seriously in ways that add nothing but superficiality.

A comment on the last scene of the pilot. I don’t remember his name (not a good thing), but when O’Brien from Star Trek started pontificating about zebras to no one in particular, I felt that Hell on Wheels had jumped the shark. Which is an awful feeling to have about a show’s first episode. This is not a crazy man we’re talking about here, just a greedy one. He didn’t have a crazy soliloquy into nothingness, he had a one sided argument with two empty chairs. He was trying to convince the chairs of what he was saying. Why would he do this? What was the point of this soliloquy other than allowing O’Brien from Star Trek to rave on and on for five minutes? And what was the point of inter cutting random scenes of the other characters into the raving? What O’Brien from Star Trek was saying had nothing to do with the other characters. It was just… weird. I honestly don’t understand the point of it all beyond the show jumping up and down screaming “look at me! I have interesting things to say! Look look!” No thank you.

Hell on Wheels Should Lose Its Training Wheels

November 7, 2011
As I slowly, painstakingly made my way through the pilot of Hell on Wheels, questions kept popping into my head. Why was I watching this, when my 44 minutes could have gone toward preparing my colloquium, starting my final paper for Theorizing Popular Culture, or let’s be real here, watching something of substance like Dexter? Without ever having seen a single minute of Deadwood, I longed for it. I know this space isn’t intended for critical value judgements, but my experience, Hell on Wheels was awful (and not even in a good way). The pilot wasn’t like a car crash or something that could grow to become a guilty pleasure. It was just cliche, boring, insignificant, and instantly forgettable.

The opening titles are reminiscent of “viewer discretion advised” warnings for other shows, accompanied by ominous music. Even if only subconsciously, we’re told to expect the level of quality and intensity that usually accompanies those shows. With desaturated color and soft focus, it’s clearly not shot in a realistic fashion. Our protagonist is introduced by assassinating a man in a church confessional, in the eyes of God, seen leaving from behind as though he’s going into the light. This is clearly going to be a series of exaggerated tales, both in content and style.

Skipping ahead to the final moments of the episode, we find Thomas Durant alone in a train car, talking to himself about his role in life (and, seemingly, the show’s plot). What’s a drama without a villain, he asks, and isn’t his goal of building the railroad a drama unto itself? Lions, like him, are rewarded for their ferocity, but “what of the poor zebra?” Lesser creatures need to be sacrificed for the greater good, since while history is “written by and for” the zebra, it’s driven by the lions. In the future, he concedes that he’ll be remembered as a “malefactor who only operated out of greed for personal gain,” but without him, the expansion of America wouldn’t have occurred to the same degree. Without anyone else on camera to listen, any indication that Durant was mentally unstable, or any actual justification for these words being iterated verbally, this monologue came across as a clear address to the audience. Durant’s position wasn’t threatened, and there’s no impetuous for his grand realizations. It’s as if AMC’s powers that be decided that viewers weren’t intelligent enough to figure it out for themselves, so the entire series and the players’ roles within it needed to be spelled out for us. For a network whose crown jewel is Mad Men, which clearly appeals to the sophisticates and those who want to ascend to that class, such an approach is confusing. I certainly have little desire to keep watching, but we’ll see how many other viewers share that opinion.

Hell on Wheels Pilot

November 7, 2011

My friends and I have a television watching rule that we like to call “The Six Episode” rule: if you want to watch a new show or have always been curious about a show online or on Netflix, sit down and watch it, but before passing any opinions or giving up on it, you have to make it through at least six episodes. This rule has done great things for me (The Sopranos, The Wire) but has also completely wasted my time (Hung, Skins, FlashForward). The hardest part about this rule is the pilot, due to just how misleading a pilot can be. I recently started watching The Sopranos and if it weren’t for my reliable six episode rule I would have tossed out this show the second the pilot ended. While some pilots can take too long trying to introduce all the characters in the first hour of the show, others can fail by attempting to establish a storyline that will take a completely different direction once the show gets picked up and begins its season post-pilot. It’s difficult to say whether one can judge a show on the basis of the pilot for exactly those reasons; will the character focus change, will the action start the next episode, did the writers put a misleading amount of action in the pilot to draw viewers in? It is because of this difficulty that one must follow The Six Episode Rule, and before I pass any judgment on “Hell on Wheels” I must see the next 5 episodes.

That being said however, “Hell on Wheels” had a decent pilot episode but may have fit the typical AMC show mold a bit too much. The show had a great balance of character introductions, showing Colin’s mysterious character with a troubled past, Elam’s angry and vengeful characteristics, and even Lily Bell’s newly produced singleness (which will obviously turn into a Colin – Lily love interest, I’m calling it now) and a great dramatic ending monologue (another commonly seen aspect of pilots which often end in dramatic movie-like fashion). However, I’m afraid that the writers may have tricked us with too much action in pilot. There were already 4 bloody deaths (first scene in the church, Mr Bell’s Native American attack, Elam’s friend, and the throat cutting at the end), a difficult pattern to keep up past the first episode, yet a great way to get me hooked and look forward to possible pleasure coming from The Six Episode Rule. “The Rule” aside, however, I’m very much not looking forward to the AMC style of show that I was hoping this one would avoid. To me, AMC shows always include bad actors who over act their character (every actor in Breaking Bad) and some over-dramatized scenes. The performances last night by Ted Levine and Colm Meaney fit this mold perfectly, but also served to establish an epic-esque Western.

It’s difficult to judge a show based on its pilot and I hope everyone will avoid judgment on this episode, even if the acting was subpar (as expected) and the Western-style bloody action was decent.