Our TV shows are always foreshadowing a widening of the cultural rift, which is less about North vs. South than it is about hipster vs. kountry and celebrity vs. prole. All over reality TV, our rural cousins are shooting hogs, pawning guns, hillbilly handfishin’, digging for gold, catching rambunctious raccoons and turtles and gators, while proudly throwing around terms like “redneck” and “white trash” and otherwise expressing some 21st-century territorial anxiety that, in a coded way, expresses contempt for the high-tech, high-design, high-wattage cutting edge. A clamor for class warfare reaches a new boil every day, and never more so than in an approaching election year.
The national psyche would have snapped, if not for the meds. Demographers and political wonks are still eager to draw lines on a map and crunch data to figure out what’s happening to society, but as someone who watches gobs of television for a living, I expect our next civil war to be fought in the virtual space of the screen. It would be mostly indifferent to maps and instead become a war of media subterfuge.
With all that in mind, maybe there is something more alluring in fast-laning our Civil War history trip straight to the Reconstruction Era, the decade or so after the war ended in 1865. “Hell on Wheels,” AMC’s gratifying if brutal new Sunday night drama, is about the deep wounds the Civil War left behind and the fresh hurts that followed its immediate aftermath. Thrillingly, it’s also about the building of the transcontinental railroad, the ultimate national metaphor.
More ambitiously, “Hell on Wheels” is a western at heart, even if that heart is stone cold. It is filled with Indian rampages, sinister criminals, vigilante justice, pioneer courage and gritty subsistence in the face of rapacious wealth, and then all of that is layered in with postwar anger and racism. This immediately makes the pilot episode one of the more appealing offerings of the fall TV crop, if only because it isn’t about fairy tales or stewardesses.
The western is a much-missed genre that the movies occasionally attempt to recapture with varied success — “True Grit” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” are some memorable recent examples. But where TV is concerned, the western rode off into the sunset more than a generation ago, trailed by a prancing Laura Ingalls Wilder. Had it not been for big miniseries (“Lonesome Dove”) and the occasional medicine woman, I’m not sure today’s TV viewers would know how to enjoy a western, except in a secondhand way, via baby boomer nostalgia.