Scott D. Pierce: ‘Hell on Wheels’ is big, lazy slap at Mormons

First Published      Last Updated Oct 03 2013 09:57 pm

If you're a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there are two ways to react to AMC's "Hell on Wheels."

You can be insulted by the historically inaccurate, inflammatory and rather ridiculous way Mormons have been portrayed.

Or you can roll your eyes at the show's insulting, inaccurate, inflammatory portrayal of Mormons, realizing that it's lazy fiction that not much of anybody is watching.

Probably better to go with the latter, don't you think?

If you've never seen "Hell on Wheels" — and, judging by the ratings, most of you have not — it's a revisionist Western about the building of the cross-continental railroad. Early in the current season, the hero, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), met a family of Mormon homesteaders, who live directly in the path of the railroad.

Family patriarch Aaron Hatch (James Shanklin) says he's not moving. He doesn't care about eminent domain.

And Cullen makes out with Aaron's teen daughter. Really.

When an attempt is made to railroad the Hatches off their land, Aaron shoots and kills Sheriff Dick Barlow (Matthew Glave), then blames it on his eldest son, Jeb (Ben Sullivan). Jeb is hanged for the crime.

In the most recent episode, Aaron and a band of marauding Mormons ride into town, shoot it up and take Cullen prisoner. They're set to hang him as we head into Saturday's season finale (7 and 8 p.m., AMC).

That's a bare-bones description, but let's just say that Mormons in general have been vilified all to "Hell." They're either bloodthirsty, violent jerks or simpletons. It's lazy writing relying on clichés and stereotypes.

Sure, there are bad guys in any group. Even Mormons.

But this is not about just one guy. Mormons are described as "without moral principles" and the church as "not a legitimate church of Christ."

Seems a bit nasty, doesn't it?

You could argue that was the prevailing view of Mormons in the 19th century. But "Wheels" plays so fast and loose with history it's not much of a defense.

If you're aiming for accuracy, painting Mormons as racists and, at the same time, out of tune with 19th-century America is laughable.

This melodrama would be easier to laugh off if not for people who think Oliver Stone's "JFK" was actual history, not the ravings of a conspiracy theorist. There are plenty of people who are incapable of distinguishing fantasy from reality.

But, basically, the Mormon subplot in "Hell on Wheels" is quick-and-dirty writing that uses nasty stereotypes as shorthand. Because it's harder and takes longer to put research and effort into scriptwriting. It's harder to create characters who aren't just cartoonish clichés.

So be annoyed. Just don't get too upset about any of this.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.