NEW YORK (AP) — The Western is tradition more than time or place. It's a staging area for heroic action and everyday angst. It's modern life seen through a rear-view mirror, the past made present and vice versa.
No wonder the Western feels so up-to-date these days on TV.
The surprise hit of the summer was History's miniseries "Hatfields & McCoys," a fact-based saga of feuding clans set on the border of Kentucky and West Virginia after the Civil War. Airing in June, it felt as urgent as any current-day clash in a global hot spot.
Now two series, "Hell on Wheels" (on AMC) and "Copper" (BBC America), are spinning their respective yarns from that same era. They, too, feel familiar yet fresh.
Returning for its second season, AMC's "Hell on Wheels" focuses on Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier who after the war heads west to Nebraska to work on the transcontinental railroad and, he hopes, avenge the death of his family at the hands of someone likely to be found at the Union Pacific construction camp.
At the end of last season, Bohannon (series star Anson Mount) discovered he had killed the wrong man for the crimes. In horror, he took flight from the mobile encampment that gives the show its name.
With the series' return last week, Bohannon had fallen in with a gang of train robbers.
But this week (at 9 p.m. EDT), he will be back at Hell on Wheels, again in the employ of the brutish, fortune-seeking boss of the vast construction project, Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney).
"Sometimes it seems one has to make a deal with the devil," says Durant in making his job offer, to which Bohannon sneers, "Who's the devil in THIS deal?" Durant laughs and takes his leave without bothering to answer.
A ratings and critical success last season, "Hell on Wheels" is better than ever. It feels newly grounded (if that's possible for a show that, by its nature, can never settle long in any place) and more lyrical in telling its epic tale.
Building a railroad across the country was promoted as a way to bind the nation after a war tore it apart. But the war, even with its conclusion, casts a shadow across "Hell on Wheels" and haunts Bohannon. Meanwhile, the project is continually imperiled by hubris, greed and bloodshed.
With the benefit of hindsight, every viewer knows the railroad will be finished and prove to be a boon for the nation. But that's far in the distance. "Hell on Wheels" is impressive as a gritty lesson in how progress is seldom the civilizing force it aims to be. Much hell resides in every grand plan, then or now, and this show gives that lesson an exhilarating spin.
If Hell on Wheels is a mobile microcosm of a city in the middle of nowhere, "Copper" depicts a community at nearly the same moment mired in urban blight some 1,300 miles due east: the teeming Manhattan crossroads known as Five Points.
Set in 1864, "Copper" (premiering Sunday at 10 p.m. EDT) centers on Kevin Corcoran. He's an Irish-immigrant cop who has returned from the war (like Bohannon) to find his world turned upside down (again, like Bohannon): His daughter has been murdered and his wife has vanished. Corcoran sets about to find his daughter's killer and his missing wife while policing this notoriously lawless patch of town.