Wednesday, January 04, 2012

NOT SINCE "THE DUKES OF HAZZARD"... Pajamas Media TV critic S.T. Karnick:
To be sure, in some ways ["Hell on Wheels"] pays obeisance to modern political and cultural clich├ęs about the nation’s past. Predictably, the United States in 1865 is shown as dirty and corrupt, and life for many is depicted as short, brutal, ugly, dirty, and meaningless. The railroad encampment is a cesspool rife with drunkenness, violence, and sexual license. Although no longer slaves, all the blacks we see are impoverished manual laborers.
So: a documentary, then?
Fortunately, Hell on Wheels producers Joe and Tony Gayton don’t leave it at that. Instead, they convey numerous story elements that contradict the cynical contemporary view of the nation’s history in very interesting and important ways. In the very first episode, for example, common views of the history of American race relations and the origins of the War Between the States are subverted. A northerner is cruel to the former slaves who are working on the railroad, whereas the protagonist, a southerner and former slaveholder, is sympathetic to them and treats them fairly. Later we find out that even though he fought for the Confederacy, the Southerner had already freed his own slaves and suffered privation in order to pay them wages for their services.
Ah -- so,  more of a Freaky Friday sort of thing.
Similarly, Sherman’s March and the Union’s conduct of the war in general are depicted as vicious and unconscionable, whereas the Southern cause is characterized as a matter of honor, which the characters — who would know, of course — clearly accept as true...

Ex-slaves in the North, by contrast, are shown as living under awful conditions that make a mockery of the Emancipation Proclamation... Ferguson foreshadows the argument that the black educator and political leader Booker T. Washington would make near the end of the century: that blacks shouldn’t wait around for political solutions requiring equal treatment from whites, but could only ensure their own betterment through hard work, competition, and entrepreneurship...

Having obliterated the southern half of the nation, the government’s activities in the postwar era seem largely confined to displacing Indians, killing Indians, and seeking out corrupt ways of amassing wealth for the politically connected few...
Readers, I haven't seen this show. Is it really the glowing tribute to the Lost Cause Karnick portrays? Because if so, I think America might be ready for my contrarian take on "Uncle Tom's Cabin," with Ian McShane as a tortured, foul-mouthed Simon Legree.

Even outside of the Southron stuff, the review is full if wonders, e.g.:
The real villain here is clearly government. As Cole’s entreaty indicates, the white people in the railroad encampment want nothing but for the Indians to leave them alone, and vice versa, but the government is intent on forcing them into separate worlds.
Also, in the machinations of the Republican-enabled railroad barons of the Gilded Age Karnick finds "strong parallels to modern-day congressional Democrats."

Well, you go to culture war with the culture warriors you've got, I guess. (h/t Dan Coyle)

UPDATE. "I have no idea about the show's historic accuracy," says Tod Westlake, a fan of the show, in comments, "but it's defintely entertaining. I believe this might have something to do with a literary technique known as 'irony.' I had to look it up, myself." On this head, DocAmazing recommends "Kung Fu," the old TV show about how rural Westerners loved Asians once they got to know/had their bullies beaten up by them. Me, I'm wondering if I had Once Upon a Time in the West all wrong. Maybe Frank and the weaselly railroad builder were the heroes. I mean, what did Harmonica produce?

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