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updated: 8/17/2012 3:00 PM

2 Westerns take fresh approach to familiar territory

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  • Tom Weston-Jones stars as Detective Kevin Corcoran in "Copper" premiering Sunday.

    Tom Weston-Jones stars as Detective Kevin Corcoran in "Copper" premiering Sunday.
    Courtesy of BBC America

  • Colm Meaney, left, as Thomas Durant, left, and Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon in "Hell On Wheels," returning for its second season.

    Colm Meaney, left, as Thomas Durant, left, and Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon in "Hell On Wheels," returning for its second season.
    Courtesy of AMC

Associated Press

NEW YORK -- 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 rearview 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 8 p.m. Sunday), 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).

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 9 p.m.) 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.

As played by Tom Weston-Jones, Detective Corcoran exhibits an uncompromising style of law enforcement.

"You can talk," he says, his pistol pressed against the temple of a withholding witness -- "or you can pray."

And though he seems to be a loner, he has two relationships cemented by mutual service in Union Army: an African-American physician (Ato Essandoh) and a dissolute son of an aristocratic businessman (Kyle Schmid).

"Copper," BBC America's first original scripted series, is hearty and smart. Corcoran is compelling in his moral conflicts and in his doggedness at sleuthing for justice.

Meanwhile, the show shares other cinematic tropes with "Hell on Wheels": mud and dust, browns and taupes, and weather that always seems too hot, too cold or too wet. Whether east or west, both shows are Westerns, with the distinction between a sprawling rural void and urban crush almost beside the point.

What counts is a certain past-tense immediacy.

Indeed, Christina Wayne, an executive producer of "Copper," likes to get to the "now" in storytelling through the pathways of the past.

"I find that I'm more likely to get lost in material if it takes place in a different time than the present," says Wayne, now the president of Cineflix Studios who, during a stint at AMC, developed "Hell on Wheels" as well as the network's game-changing 2006 Western miniseries, "Broken Trail."

"I like to look at what was going on in America then and consider what's going on right now," she says, "and ask how those stories differ and how they're the same."

As "Copper" begins, she notes, an incumbent president is running for re-election. The show also taps into racial issues, the oppressive social hierarchy and "the greed of the upper classes: how they're not doing anything other than amassing wealth."

Like Wayne, Tom Fontana has long trained his eye on the past. A co-creator of "Copper," his credits include the acclaimed contemporary cop show "Homicide: Life on the Street." But he wanted to do a cop show set in the 1800s.

He marveled at the primitive forensics of that era, when not only was DNA analysis unimagined, the New York Police Department didn't even have a morgue.

"It's a show about the mind, not machines, trying to figure things out," says Fontana, but quickly adds, "I think you should be able to watch `Copper' as if it were a contemporary show. You forget the history and just let the characters live the way any characters would live. It's about character, and passions, and trying to understand the purpose of being in the world -- the same things we're all still taking about today."

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