Friday, March 30, 2012

New TV, Old Tropes: A Review of "Hell on Wheels"

Hell on Wheels
It's no Deadwood, but at least it's trying.

Rewriting history is fun. Heroes become villains, villains heroes. One can tell much about where the wind is blowing politically just by watching TV rewriting history, myths and legends.
In the news we expect it, of course. However  fantasy, sci-fi or historical dramas - even  animes and kiddy shows - contain more concrete and accurate political analysis than any Meet the Press right now. And westerns in particular usually lay it thickly like it is.

Westerns give the creators of the shows and its audience the opportunity to start a-fresh, to create the country from the ground up, to their presumed image, all gloves off.
Women are then girls, Natives are Savages and Black people are finally bought and sold again as easily as Kleenex boxes and all is right with the world as God meant it, amen. If  it seems to you like you can recognize by smell just a whiff of the stuff from which GOP's erotic dreams are made, you have the gist of it.

With such a comforting (for some) but reactionary setting, what type of hero do we introduce? One who comfort the rest of the protagonists in their way or one who challenge them? Usually, for demographic sake, creators tends to go with the Loner: available (dead wife means the female audience can always dream of Mr. Strong Silent Type), righteous (vengeance fantasy is good for the slightly frustrated male audience), but sensitively receptive (the "loves me some natives and Blacks are people too as long as I'm still the hero and get the girl" syndrome). Here - everybody's happy!

Deadwood followed the same principles - Timothy Olyphant was eye candy with a soul and a gun. And all things to all men.

So what made that show different? The muddy realistic setting for one, that made for the TV western what Taxi Driver night shots did for New York. And Ian McShane - who could be the Oliver Reed of our time if not for the sad fact that he is not completely insane. And last but not least, great writing based on magnificent little vignettes in characters studies of Calamity Jane, Wild Bill, Wyatt Earp, E.B. Farnum, Mr. Wu, etc... Weary scarred individuals, cruel mob bosses and lonely eccentrics creating slowly but surely the basis for our modern world.

So, what about Hell on Wheels?

Strong silent loner? Check.
Muddy hellhole? Check
Church settlement scene that is an exact knock off of Deadwood's? Check
Non veroled, healthy as an ox prostitutes? Check

Colm Meany, despite his name, might look just too damn decent for a dark villain of first grade manipulative savage capitalism gone unchecked - not an oily old snake like Cy Tolliver, nor a brutal megalomaniac with a twisted tender heart as Al Swearengen.

But, on the other hand, Hell's scope of study of politics might be less restrained to a small town in the making and incorporates the whole land from sea to shining sea.

Also, the law is not our friend anymore. The Swede is a fascinating creature of pure logic. More than a Norwegian, he is the stereotype of the perfect German soldier of some old WWII movie: efficient, loyal, cunning, cold and distant to the point of being slightly psychopatic. But actor Christopher Heyerdahl infuse him silently with enough of a scarred humane quality that we are always enjoying his company and can't wait to see what he'll do next to surprise us.

Lily Bell is a satisfactory heroine. Without going all out Ripley, in dire circumstances she kills to survive and acquire the aura of a survivor that won't get fooled again. Her coldness gives her backbone and we can only root for her as she plays Doc Durant as much as he tries to play her. Unfortunately, it also makes her just plain cold. So our prayers go to the prostitutes.

But my favorites are Joseph Black Moon and Mr Ferguson. Keeping a minimum of self-respect when playing a character that is a member of a minority in our times is a major feat. Long gone are the scripts letting a character like a long lean gentle but stern and unarmed Sidney Poitier could insist loud and clear that is name is Mr Tibbs, period.

Now we'll get some interchangeable ex rapper or another mumbles his few lines and get thrown out of our collective memory just as fast by a continuous chain of bizarrely bad decisions, crude thinking, incompetence or just open idiocy... But here is Common all gentle manner and grave present voice, his dignity intact in the Wild West. In this world, he becomes it's moral center. No angelism, just a Rorschach test of their obsession with power, guilt and displacement. Since Common can act and can make a character grow by giving him an inner life, he will not stay as a simple projection of a race relation simile. If he does, the responsibility will squarely fall on the writers" shoulders.

And finally here is Black Moon with Johnny Depp's Dead Man haircut and scenes after scene of self-loathing angst and childish self effacement. The last time I saw a First Nation aboriginal smile freely on TV without the chapel of any stereotype was in North of 60 and Northern Exposure in the 90's. Again, the writers need to break free and give Black Moon a presence that can enrich the whole show.

The railroad in itself is a character in Hell on Wheels, like a bloodline or an old aunt with bizarre presents.It is undeniably a symbol of what was to come to and become of the Great Far West. But good stories are more than symbols, not less. And I think the writers of Hell on Wheels have what it take to let his hero and stories make a stand about what exactly they intend to built out of all the mud.

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