'Hell on Wheels' new season will hook you from the first scene

Hell on Wheels. (Courtesy AMC)

Hell on Wheels. (Courtesy AMC)

Bill Harris, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:54 PM ET

There was an era when Hell on Wheels might have been the most popular show on TV.

I guess I have to qualify that a bit. In the 1950s and 1960s, when Westerns were the dominant genre for TV drama, high-end cable fare did not exist. Hell on Wheels would have given network-TV viewers – i.e., fans of Gunsmoke and Bonanza – heart attacks back then.

So let's put it this way. Had high-end cable fare existed in the '50s and '60s, Hell on Wheels might have been the most popular show on TV. The Game of Thrones of its day, perhaps.

But it's 2014, and Hell on Wheels doesn't have zombies or vampires or white walkers or superheroes in capes. What it does have, however, is great acting and great production and great scenery, and it treats its subject matter – the race to build a transcontinental railroad in the post-U.S. Civil War years in the 1860s – with gritty realism.

Hell on Wheels, which is shot in Alberta, returns for its fourth season, Saturday, Aug. 2 on AMC. Even if you've never seen the series before, I would encourage you to watch the first scene of the new season, and see if it doesn't hook you, or at the very least you'll appreciate the look and feel and sharp dialogue that the series has to offer.

It's winter in the West. The railroad has to keep advancing, but they've reached a little impediment known as the Crow River.

Thomas Durant, played by Colm Meaney, is the man in charge. Track has been laid across the ice and now it must be tested.

“Have you thought of everything?” Durant asks his skeptical and passively incredulous chief engineer.

“Of course not,” the engineer replies as he sips from his flask. “It doesn't occur to me how to engineer my own destruction.”

There's even a side bet among the workers regarding the point at which the poor man who must drive the train over the ice will jump out to try to save himself.

Let's just say by the end of the scene, I was thinking to myself that filming Hell on Wheels must be as hard as actually building the railroad. Not literally, of course, but you know what I'm saying.

As season four begins, lead character Cullen Bohannon, played by Anson Mount, is being held against his will at a Mormon fort. With all the things that Cullen has seen, you wouldn't think it would be possible to shock him anymore. But he truly was shocked in the final episode of the third season, when the man who was introduced to Cullen as “Bishop Joseph Dutson” turned out to be Cullen's vicious nemesis known as The Swede, played by Christopher Heyerdahl.

Hell on Wheels has been blessed with compelling villains. Meaney elevates anything he's in, so the makers of Hell on Wheels surely knew what they were getting when they cast him. But perhaps Heyerdahl has been a pleasant surprise, as his role has expanded through the years. While Durant battles Cullen on an intellectual and business level, The Swede engages Cullen in a more primal way, appealing to Cullen's violent roots.

Messing with that dynamic in season four is John Campbell, played by Tim Roth-lookalike Jake Weber. Campbell has been sent West to Cheyenne by General and future President Ulysses S. Grant, played by Victor Slezak, to act as the provisional governor of the Wyoming territory. This puts Campbell in direct conflict with Durant, who is used to running things on his own and for his own devices. Let's just say Campbell and his cohorts have a different take on law and order than Cheyenne has been accustomed to in the past.

The Western is a niche genre now, unlike in the '50s and '60s. But as Hell on Wheels proves again and again, a good show is a good show, whether the characters are carrying wands or carrying rifles.

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