"Hell on Wheels" is the latest original series from AMC, the cable network also currently committed to shows about zombies, ad men, a meth-making former high school teacher and the yet-unsolved murder of a Washington teenager. What they all share is a certain gritted-teeth tension and an air of incipient violence, except for when violence is actually occurring. There will be blood, literally or figuratively.
The new series, which premieres Sunday, is set not long after the end of the Civil War in a tent city called Hell on Wheels at the advancing, westward edge of the Union Pacific railroad. (The Central Pacific was heading east from the West Coast; the two railroads would eventually meet near what is now Ogden, Utah, where they were famously joined into the Transcontinental Railroad with a golden spike — that does not count as a spoiler.) Its name notwithstanding, Hell on Wheels is not going anywhere fast.
As things begin, we are still in the vicinity of Council Bluffs, Iowa, barely under way. Improbably hanging around the encampment, in a private railroad car parked on a siding, with a New York chef and a black butler who sings in French, is Union Pacific vice-president Thomas "Doc" Duncan (Colm Meaney). Unlike the rest of this crew — a crowd of misfits, castoffs, immigrants, ex-soldiers and freed slaves — Duncan was a real person of history, and a piece of work. (He had an elastic relationship with other people's money.)
As a tale of the transforming American West with a self-serving businessman at its center, "Hell on Wheels" bears some comparison to "Deadwood," but it's fundamentally a different animal, less intellectual or intimate, with all of the mud but little of the domestic detail. Closer to our familiar notions of a western, its dramatis personae includes the quiet gunslinger with a score to settle, the crooked industrialist, the preacher, the prostitute, the pretty widow, the black man fighting for respect, the Christianized Indian stretched between two worlds, the Indians in the woods determined to keep theirs. It is also, obviously, the less expensive production, though clever about it: Many scenes are set in meadows or forests; the main standing set, which (for the first five episodes, at least) is almost the only set, is made largely of canvas.
Created by brothers Joe and Tony Gayton (who co-wrote the Dwayne Johnson film "Faster" — subtitled "Slow justice is no justice"), it takes its cues more from the movies than from life. Never, in the episodes I watched, did I feel as if I were actually seeing how a railroad got built, and sometimes it took a bit of squinting not to see the characters as actors in a field, reading lines. Still, for all the unlikely things the Gaytons make happen in order to get their characters into place, and the dogged refusal of a couple of those characters to become interesting at all, the show gathers steam as it goes on.
If the grim ex-Confederate played by Anson Mount seems at first so much a particular type that he might as well have been wearing a poncho and smoking a cigar — he has the cigar, in fact — he develops with time into something more complex and, oddly, less sympathetic. He gets enough movements of selflessness and bravery to keep him functioning as a hero, but he still carries around the prejudices of his kind. As a freed slave who becomes the Confederate's reluctant confederate, Common is hobbled at first by having to represent a racial rather than a personal experience, though this, too, looks likely to change.
The dialogue runs a gamut from the realistically offhanded to didactic speechifying to the weirdly stiff, and the actors suffer or thrive to the degree they're forced to cart around big ideas or simply to get on with their lives. This means that some of the best work is done around the edges. Especially convincing are tall, sepulchral Christopher Heyerdahl as "The Swede" (the joke is he's Norwegian), who runs the town for Duncan; Phil Burke as the sweeter and less mercenary of two entrepreneurial Irish brothers; and Robin McLeavy as a prostitute with an Indian tattoo on her chin. It took me a while to recognize Ted Levine (from "Monk") behind a thicket of whiskers as the camp foreman, but it is always good to see even a little bit of Ted Levine.