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Review: AMC's 'Hell on Wheels'

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Hell on Wheels
10 p.m. Sundays
AMC

Colm Meaney closes the first episode of “Hell on Wheels,” AMC’s new series about building the transcontinental railroad, with a lovely soliloquy of sorts in which he asks rhetorically: “What is the building of this grand road if not a drama?”

If it wasn’t a drama back then, it certainly is now. And a grand one at that.

“Hell on Wheels” takes us back to 1865. The country’s North and South have reunited, however tenuously, and now, in the words of Meaney’s character, Thomas “Doc” Durant, it’s time to unite east and west by rail. The federal government has hired Durant to oversee the construction, and he approaches the task with glee and gluttony. There’s a fortune to be made, and he’s going to reap every dime.

The project attracts all kinds of people — some seeking work, others looking to erase their past, still others looking for vengeance. They include Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier searching for the men who raped and murdered his wife; Elam Ferguson (Common), an emancipated slave; and Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), whose love is killed by an Indian while mapping the route for the railroad.

Their stories form the center of this drama.

“Hell on Wheels,” named for the tent city that moved along as the railroad was built, has a lot going for it. This week’s pilot episode reels you in with a fast-moving, intrigue-filled script that establishes the characters and action quickly. The show also has a look that’s both stylish and gritty. Some of the construction work is “hotter than a whorehouse on nickel night,” as one character says, and it certainly looks that way.

And the actors bring a kind of Clint Eastwood-esque steel to their characters. All harbor secret sorrows (a prerequisite of TV dramas), and they prove themselves to be more than tough enough.

Looks like Sundays will be the night of period dramas for a while. First “Boardwalk Empire” on HBO, then “Hell on Wheels.”

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