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.