When AMC put on a TV show as nuanced as "Mad Men," it set the bar high. Really high. When AMC added "Breaking Bad," the bar for quality programming grew taller still. This also sets up expectations that every AMC series will have the depth, layers and smarts of these two shows. But as viewers saw with "The Killing," that won't always be the case.
Last season, when AMC debuted its transcontinental railroad drama "Hell on Wheels," these high expectations were not met. Not that it was a bad show, just a poorly paced series that didn't engross the way past AMC shows have.
And yet, "Hell on Wheels" was a hit. The first season averaged 3 million viewers per episode, second only to "The Walking Dead" on AMC -- and way ahead of "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" in Nielsen ratings.
AMC has a long history of success with Westerns -- the "Broken Trail" miniseries did big numbers for the network in the pre-"Mad Men" era -- and the genre is suddenly popular again with Western-tinged series such as FX's "Justified" and A&E's "Longmire" also drawing fans.
"Hell on Wheels" returns for its second season Sunday at 9 p.m., and it is possible to jump in even if you didn't watch season one. But the character relationships will mean more for viewers familiar with the show.
Former Civil War soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) traveled West in an effort to find the man responsible for killing his wife; he got his vengeance, but it was misdirected and he killed the wrong man. Bohannon left Hell on Wheels, the traveling encampment at the forefront of the building of the transcontinental railroad, and when viewers see him at the start of season two, he's joined a gang of train robbers.
Back at Hell on Wheels, greedy railroad impresario Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meany) has trouble in his community with its first murder. By the end of the second episode of the new season, Sioux Indians are after him.
It takes the first two episodes to get the series reset and bring Bohannon back to Hell on Wheels. Along the way he's threatened with death, but "Hell on Wheels" is not the sort of show that has it in its DNA to kill off its lead character. This is not "Game of Thrones," so threats of death on the lead character, no matter how violent, have little impact for anyone familiar with the tactics of good-but-not-great drama series.
"Hell on Wheels" has intermingled its characters more than in season one -- it no longer feels like you're watching a dozen different TV shows now that the main characters actually interact with one another. And the show's pace seems more brisk, less stodgy.
Best of all, "Hell on Wheels" continues to look awful in the best sense. The mud and slop brought about by rain in the dirt streets give the show a grimy, visceral appearance that almost lets you taste the grit. As the towns build up, it gives "Hell on Wheels" an even better sense of place and, to the eyes of viewers in 2012, a seemingly realistic glimpse at life on the frontier.
A version of this review first appeared in Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.