By Ken Tucker
Updated August 12, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT
Michelle Faye

The Western is alive and tentative on Sunday nights. A&E’s Longmire gives us a modern law-man with brooding, Anthony-Mann-Lite atmospherics. And now the second season of AMC’s Hell on Wheels, with its Andre de Toth moderate-budget vistas and hemmed-in, conflicting protagonists, proves that this genre can thrive on TV if a series is built around a quiet but forceful hero, some black-hearted villains, and some attractive yet ruthless women-folk.

Indeed, despite all the media attention for Mad Men, Hell on Wheels in its debut season was the second-most-watched show on AMC, after The Walking Dead. Viewers got caught up in the post-Civil War tale of former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (soulfully shaggy Anson Mount). Cullen started this 19th-century-set series working on the building of the transcontinental railroad, a chunk of which is being overseen by the corrupt overlord Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney, operating on cruise-control).

Cullen came complete with a tragic past that sounds cribbed from old John Ford Westerns (dead wife, dead child, vowing revenge on the Union soldiers that killed ’em), but Wheels co-creators Joe and Tony Gayton mix things up with characters such as the shrewd freed slave Elam, played by Common, and an impeccable yet hotsy British widow — Dominique McElliogott’s Lily — who continues to prove almost as conniving as Durant.

The new season commenced with Cullen doing something other than laying railroad track – robbing trains. (The Gayton boys know their history, starting with the 1903 Edwin S. Porter film The Great Train Robbery.) We caught up with characters who’d been brought low by railroad town life, such as Tom Noonan’s preacher Cole, now a pathetic drunkard, and Christopher Heyerdahl’s Thor, aka “The Swede,” a former Durant henchman who hasn’t quite overcome the humiliation of being tarred and feathered late last season.

Hell on Wheels had improved over the course of its first season. The series remains visually impressive: The AMC budget to build a railroad can’t be huge, but the scenes of labor and train travel remain vividly expansive. And the show manages to both exploit time-honored cowboys-and-Indian clichés with Cheyenne and Sioux tribes – the Western genre thrives on such antagonism, of course — while also avoiding a lot of Native American stereotypes.

Ultimately, though, the show rises or falls each week on the strength of the moments when Mount and Common dominate. Each in his own way – and often in separate scenes – they are occasionally capable of lifting Hell on Wheels to the level the series so clearly wants to attain: A fresh take on the old macho code of a-man’s-gotta-do-what-a-man’s-gotta-do, without excessive posturing or an excessive self-consciousness about the century of film and TV Westerns that have preceded them. At this point in its life, Wheels has broken free of the debt it owes to HBO’s Deadwood, but not to the other stylistic model it occasionally recalls, Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

Twitter: @kentucker