By Ken Tucker
Updated November 04, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

Hell on Wheels is in trouble if it can’t maintain my interest, since I’m a fan of Westerns who’s eager for the genre to make a prime-time comeback — and, therefore, an ideal audience for this show. Alas, the post-Civil War saga, about the literal railroading of America, starring Anson Mount as a vengeful Man in Black, lacks narrative steam.

Mount’s Cullen Bohannon is a taciturn former Confederate soldier given to portentous pronouncements that don’t fit his character, such as ”Looks to me like chaos is winnin’.” He’s hell-bent on avenging the killing of his wife, but in the meantime, he’s been hired onto the expanding transcontinental railroad. He oversees laborers including Elam Ferguson, an emancipated slave played by musician-actor Common. The series is stuffed with fine actors, among them Star Trek franchise vet Colm Meaney as the corrupt rail entrepreneur and Damages‘ lanky police detective, Tom Noonan, as a beanpole preacher. Every character, however, is too one-note from what I’ve seen: Common’s Elam is angry, Noonan’s Reverend Cole is eccentric, etc.

Creators and exec producers Joe and Tony Gayton seem to be straining for the sort of magnificently bleak emotional landscapes of an Anthony Mann-directed Western such as Man of the West. They’ve got the visuals down pat — the series has a lush sprawl that looks like someone robbed AMC’s piggy bank. But too often the Gaytons’ show goes all gassy and fizzles, like a humorless Blazing Saddles. C