A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this adult-targeted drama portrays life more or less as it was in the post-Civil War "wild" West. That means you'll hear unbleeped language (including "s--t") along with racist terms like the N-word, "darky," and "chink," and see realistically violent conflict that results from stabbings, shootings and the like. Sexual content isn't graphic, but there's some sexual innuendo, kissing, and implied sex. Some characters drink socially, too, and occasionally get drunk.
- Parents say
- Kids say
What's the story?
With the Civil War over, ex-Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) journeys west to avenge his wife's death and finds work in the lawless town of HELL ON WHEELS, where the transcontinental railroad is staging its cross-country expansion. Once there, he crosses paths with an emancipated slave (Common), a greedy entrepreneur (Colm Meaney), and a freshly widowed woman (Dominique McElligott).
Is it any good?
On the surface, Hell on Wheels certainly looks like it could be another Mad Men or The Walking Dead, the type of well-made, cerebral drama AMC is known for. Both the art direction and costuming are thoughtful and detailed, and the period is well-defined. But there's something in the way this story's told that makes us care a lot less about these characters than we'd like to.
Perhaps the problem lies in the show's sweeping ambitions to tell too many stories at once, blending elements of Manifest Destiny, post-Civil War racial tensions, and the construction of the transcontinental railroad, just to name a few. That said, with the writing in the right hands, it's precisely that level of ambition that could be the series' greatest virtue.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the show's portrayal of a specific historical time period and whether that portrayal seems accurate or exaggerated. What details make what you're seeing seem more realistic? (Think about violence, language, and costuming, to name a few.) How does the show compare with what you know to be true about the American West during that era?
How does the show address the racism of the time period? Whose perspective is the story told from? Do minority characters have much of a voice? How did the end of the Civil War affect the lives of African Americans? How did America's westward expansion affect the lives of Native Americans?
What role did the railroad play in our nation's growth? Was the "progress" of westward expansion truly positive for everyone involved?
For kids who love drama
Our editors recommend
Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.