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6 Shows like Hell on Wheels: History Reborn

James Thomas itcherHistory is the greatest source of fiction, and when it comes to the Old West, people look at the past through rose colored glasses. TV shows like ‘Hell on Wheels’, ‘Maverick’ and ‘Bonanza’ made the untamed west seem fun. Today we like things with a little more realism. If you are like me and enjoy your cowboy fiction a bit messy, check out ‘Deadwood’, ‘Justified’, and ‘Peaky Blinders’. ~ James Thomas

Enter Bohannon

I feel that nothing about American history or culture is as glitzy or uncomplicated as the old fictional west. ‘Hell on Wheels’ does its best to show you that history is full of blood, bigots, and bad folks.

The main character of the show is Cullen Bohannon, a former slave owner who fought in the American Civil War… I’ll let you figure out which side.

He starts the show off looking to make the men who killed his wife into compost. In the process he stumbles into a job building the First Transcontinental Railroad that effectively united the US into the massive country it is today.

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Shows Similar to ‘Hell on Wheels’…

‘Deadwood’ (HBO, 2004-2006)

Another example of a creative retelling of a real historic place and events set in the America west, ‘Deadwood’ helped set the tone for TV shows like ‘Hell on Wheels’. The show takes place in 1870 in the town of Deadwood, otherwise known as the town where famed ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok was gunned downed by a coward.

One of the stand-out characters is the villain/best-damn-character Al Swearengin, who is based on a real historical figure, yes the west made people like that.

But one of the most interesting things about the show is the structure of the dialogue, which subtly mimics Shakespearean pentameter. This writing technique works well when you see how dirty everyone is both emotionally and physically filthy.

Similarity Match: 95%
Deadwood is a show that makes the Wild West feel real and grimy much to my delight, just like the place Cullen is guiding the railroad through and it takes place in an actual town with a brutal history.

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‘Longmire’ (A&E-Netflix, 2012- )

To me ‘Longmire’ is a more modern take on the western theme offered in ‘Hell on Wheels’. You can see that the influence of the west has certainly not dimmed when it comes to the show ‘Longmire’.

Focusing on the life of Sherriff Walt Longmire in Wyoming, I can tell you, the show is as much a detective drama as it is a modern western. Walt must overcome the loss of his wife and the estrangement between him and his daughter; the ever present threat of losing his office, and good old fashion old age catching up with him.

Additionally, there are significant racial tensions between the inhabitants of Walt’s town and the Native Americans on the reservation nearby for the sheriff to handle.

Similarity Match: 90%
Longmire is decades removed from the old west, but I think it deals with a similar set if issues in a way that is both modern and filled with what Walt would call “horse sense.”

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‘Justified’ (FX, 2010-2015)

A TV series like ‘Hell on Wheels’ is so removed from the modern world that even its grimy reality seems otherworldly. But when I watched ‘Justified’ I noticed that the action was set in a modern world with a cowboy who lives the life of a hard-nosed bringer of justice.

Based on a short story called “Fire in the Hole”, the series follows Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens as he delivers blunt force justice to the organized and absurdly disorganized criminal elements in Harlan, Kentucky.

When he’s not trading bullets with the Dixie Mafia, Raylan often finds himself in conflict with his own family’s criminal past or facing off against Boyd Crowder – his old friend/deadliest enemy.

Similarity Match: 85%
I think ‘Justified’ is what would happen if you brought Cullen Bohannon to the present and pressed him into service as a police officer in a county full of meth heads and mad bombers.

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‘Bonanza’ (NBC, 1959-1973)

When people think of westerns on television, usually ‘Bonanza’ comes to mind and for good reason. ‘Bonanza’ is known as the longest running western on TV in America and likely in the world.

The show is set in the untamed west and follows the Cartwright family, made up of the patriarch Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) Joseph or “Little Joe” (Michael Landon), Eric “Hoss” Cartwright (Dan Blocker), and Adam Cartwright (Pernell Roberts).

This family of ranchers became a touchstone for Americans in the 60’s and 70’. Cartwright ranch was idyllic and clean, so clean in fact that I think it was completely unrealistic.

Similarity Match: 75%
I think this classic series is the idealized version of the West that so many people like to remember. However, it does deal with some of the same subject matter as ‘Hell on Wheels’ if light-heartedly and problematically.

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If You Like ‘Hell on Wheels’, You Will Like…

These shows are each set in the past like ‘Hell on Wheels’ and offer a fresh perspective on history. However, one is far removed from the west, but set in a place with the same potential for violence, and the other is wholly fictional.

‘Peaky Blinders’ (BBC Two, 2013- )

‘Peaky Blinders’ takes place in a whole different country and at a much later date, in 1919 Birmingham, England. But as with any good series similar to ‘Hell on Wheels’ I found it brings a sort of grim authenticity to history that makes it more accessible and authentic.

Following the grimiest gang in Birmingham with a deceptively adorable name, this is the story of the rise of one of England’s most famous criminal out fits.

The group, headed by Tommy Shelby, takes their name from the practice of putting razor blades in hats that were then used as melee weapons, primarily for the purpose of rendering the opponents blind.

I enjoyed how the show deals with some real historical events, for example, the cost of WWI and labor unrest in England at the time.

‘Peaky Blinders’ is physically very far from the raw wilderness of ‘Hell on Wheels’, but the show tells the tale of a time when life was in Birmingham was just as brutal and unforgiving.

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‘Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman’ (CBS, 1993-1998)

‘Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman’, is the lighter side of ‘Hell on Wheels’. the body count is not as high, the language is not as harsh, and bigotry is dealt with using kid gloves for the most part.

What links it to ‘Hell on Wheels’ so significantly is the romance novel cover good looks of Dr. Quinn’s love interest, which are very similar to Cullen Bohannon’s in my opinion.

The show is about a doctor who leaves the safety of Boston searching for adventure in the Old American West settling in Colorado Springs.

Surprisingly she finds it without falling prey to every other sociopath in the Old West.

The world of Dr. Quinn exists well away from the true brutality of ‘Hell on Wheels’, as it was intended for a slightly different audience, but it easily touches on similar themes of the untamed wilderness and survival.

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No Room for Nostalgia

‘Hell on Wheels’ seeks to be entertaining and realistic, which can sometimes lead to disturbing visuals. Do you think nostalgia is more important than accuracy?

Let us know in the comments down below.

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