LOS ANGELES -- Fifty years ago, television followed the advice of Horace Greeley and went West. Eleven of the top 20 shows were westerns, including "Gunsmoke," "Wagon Train" and "Have Gun Will Travel."
But small-town marshals eventually gave way to big-city detectives and with the occasional exception -- "Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman," "Deadwood" -- the genre went the way of the horse-drawn buggy.
That may make AMC's "Hell on Wheels," a gritty new series set just after the Civil War, a gamble. But executives have good reason to feel optimistic.
"Broken Trail," a 2006 miniseries starring Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church as conscientious cowboys, remains the most watched show in the network's history, and reruns of "The Rifleman" on Saturday mornings have performed well.
"It was a no-brainer for us to look for a next great western scripted series," said Joel Stillerman, AMC's senior vice president for programming. "It was not a no-brainer to find it."
What they finally landed on is a series worthy of comparison to the network's other dramas: "The Walking Dead," "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men."
At first glance, "Hell on Wheels" is a typical western featuring Cullen Bohannon, an ex-soldier determined to kill the men who raped and murdered his wife. Possibly standing in his way is a businessman, Doc Durant, who won't let Cullen's mission -- or anything else -- get in the way of his plans to build a transcontinental railroad.
But then things get tricky.
It turns out that Cullen fought for the Confederacy and once owned slaves, a complication when he becomes indebted to a recently freed man, Elam Ferguson. And Durant may not be as evil as his gruff voice and random acts of violence suggest. Toss in a priest trying to make peace between the American Indians and settlers, a woman trying to pick up where her dead husband left off and a tent city that moves along with construction of the railroad tracks, and you've got a traveling circus prepped to take on issues like race, greed and religion that still resonate today.
Colm Meaney, who plays Durant, said the setup is somewhat similar to the one on his last TV series, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."
"Something I learned to appreciate while I was doing that show was that we could address issues in a way that contemporary television probably couldn't," he said. "In a funny way, by going back, we can do the same thing."
Common, best known as a rapper, said he didn't know a lot about the era before taking on the role of Elam. He feels a responsibility to get it factually right.
"When you go home, you're emotionally drained, especially when you have scenes that really deal with some powerful things," he said. "It can weigh on you. But it's a liberating thing to a certain extent."
Not that "Hell" is strictly a history class.
There are some great comedic bits, heart-pounding action scenes and beautiful, minimally lit photography. David Von Ancken, who directed the pilot, calls his approach "painting with dirt," a strategy that works so well viewers will think dust is coating their teeth.
"It's fun to be in the mud and running around with guns," Common said. "The other day, we were filming a scene where we rode up on horses and I thought, 'Man, wait until the folks from Chicago see me doing this.'"
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