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Westerns make gritty comeback

AnsMount is Cullen BohannChicago’s Commportrays Elam FergusAMC Western “Hell Wheels.”

Anson Mount is Cullen Bohannon and Chicago’s Common portrays Elam Ferguson in the AMC Western “Hell on Wheels.”

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9 to 10 p.m. Sundays on AMC

Updated: December 6, 2011 8:09AM

The good ol’ Western, once a staple on prime-time TV, is bucking its way back onto the small screen.

AMC, the network of Serious Storytelling, is throwing its cowboy hat in the ring Sunday with a new series, “Hell on Wheels.” The post-Civil War drama depicts harsh, lawless life in a traveling tent city whose denizens are building the transcontinental railroad.

“Hell on Wheels” is set during a pivotal time in the nation’s history when everything was raw and in flux. The North and South were still wiping blood off their hands. Slaves had newfound freedom. Native Americans were fighting to hold their ground. And greedy entrepreneurs were trying to get rich off the whole thing.

“It’s got themes of greed and injustice, racial prejudice, struggle, the pursuit of dreams,” said Chicago-bred hip-hop star Common. He plays Elam Ferguson, a former slave whose new life is full of back-breaking work on the railroad and soul-crushing discrimination both on and off the job. As Ferguson points out in one scene, the Emancipation Proclamation might as well be toilet paper to him.

Like any good Western, “Hell on Wheels” also has a theme of revenge, a dish best served through the barrel of a Griswold revolver.

Steely eyed Anson Mount plays former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon, who goes all Outlaw Josey Wales after his wife is raped and murdered by Yankees. This Johnny Reb’s quest for vengeance takes him to Hell on Wheels, where he lands a job working for corrupt railroad tycoon Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney), a character based on the real man.

Meaney (“Star Trek”) is fun to watch as the ruthless robber baron who sips fine wine while his workers wallow in a muddy tent city in Nebraska, slaving away and spending their hard-earned cash in Hell on Wheel’s cat­houses and saloons. (If you enjoy Meaney, you’ll really love The Swede, an icy enforcer who surfaces in episode two.)

Shot in rugged Alberta, Canada, “Hell on Wheels” paints a vivid picture of how brutal and bloody frontier life could be. But the show’s authenticity is uneven, especially when it imposes modern sensibilities on Bohannon. This gun-slinging Southerner was so enlightened, we’re told, he freed his slaves a year before the war started, choosing instead to pay them wages. When Bohannon ventures into a whorehouse, he hands over money but doesn’t ask for anything in return. At times, I half expected to see a needlepoint of Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code hanging above Bohannon’s bed.

“Hell on Wheel’s” epic, take-your-time storytelling style feels very AMC — and that’s a good thing. But the writing and characters aren’t quite up to snuff with some of the network’s best offerings, namely “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men.”

That said, co-creators Joe and Tony Gayton have turned out a solid series that got stronger with each of the five episodes I watched. It’s bound to please Western fans, who can look forward to more from that genre. ABC, NBC and CBS reportedly each has at least one Western in the works for possible development. TNT is moving forward with its post-Civil War series, “Gateway,” while A&E plans to offer a more contemporary spin on the western with “Longmire.”

Contributing: Thomas Conner

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