Good Show, Shoddy Bonus Material by Gord Lacey (All reviews)
Hellbent on vengeance, former Confederate officer Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) travel west in search of the Union soldiers who murdered his wife. His quest leads him to "Hell on Wheels," the dangerous, raucous town that follows the construction of the nation's first transcontinental railroad.
I had heard a few things about Hell on Wheels before eOne announced the DVD/BD release, and all of them were good. It opened to the second-highest ratings on AMC, behind The Walking Dead, which earned it a quick pickup for the second season. I can't say I go out of my way to watch western movies or TV shows, but I always enjoy what I see. I was a bit surprised when I found out Hell on Wheels shoots around the Calgary area (where Unforgiven was shot), since I hadn't heard any mention of it in the news (I'm 2.5 hours North, and they usually mention when big productions are shooting in the Province of Alberta). Always nice to watch a big budget "local" show!
This 3-disc set includes all 10 episodes from the first season:
Disc 1 (2:52:37)
Immoral Mathematics (42:15)
A New Birth of Freedom (42:37)
Jamais Je Ne T'Oublierai (42:51)
Disc 2 (2:51:01)
Bread and Circuses (42:53)
Pride, Pomp, and Circumstance (42:25)
Disc 3 (1:25:13)
God of Chaos (42:25)
The show looks quite beautiful on this 1080p Blu-ray release. The show has a slightly muted look, which works well for a Western (bright colors don't seem fitting for the wild west). The picture is crisp, with no sign of edge enhancement, and just a little bit of noise here and there. eOne has set a chapter after the opening of each episode, but hasn't provided a "play all" feature.
I found the audio (both the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, and the English Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks) to be quiet, and that's not the first time I've had that problem with an eOne release. I don't know if they master their audio using a different standard, but I often have to turn up my receiver to have it at a comparable level to other programs. This is even more of an issue when the menus, and bonus material, are set properly. I normally set my Denon receiver to -25 dB, but had to turn it up to -17.5 dB for watching this show.
Now, the audio tracks themselves are great. You can hear a lot of details in the mix, and they made full use of the 5.1 format, from the nice, deep bass when things explode, to the ambient effects that draw you into the scene. I turned my head a few times because I thought a sound on screen was actually happening in my room, but it wasn't, it was just the TV. There are English subtitles if you need them.
If the audio level was higher, this would have been a 9/10, but the low audio levels lowered the score by a point.
Recreating the Past: The Making of Hell on Wheels (16:54)
This featurette has the distinction of being the worst piece I've ever seen on a DVD release. It features a number of producers and crew members that worked on the show, but it's long, boring, and is poorly produced. The picture is slightly washed out, but the footage from the show is so washed out (likely uncorrected shots taken from dailies) that I have to wonder 1) why someone would submit this as work they produced, and 2) how this passed QC and made it onto the set. You can hear background noises (hissing, sounds of others working) during the interviews and the volume is uneven between the people speaking. There's also one part (11:37 into it) where they inserted audio from the scene playing on screen part-way through a sentence in an interview. This is what you hear: "The whore house was fun just because of 'pull up your britches and get out' the characters involved in that kind of situation." I wasn't left speechless by this, instead I spouted a series of expletives that caused my wife to come into the room to see what was going on. I produced better material than this in college, and it's stuff I wouldn't show people now because I'm embarrassed with the quality.
Crashing a Train: From Concept to Camera (3:25)
The same poor quality as the previous featurette. A short interview, followed by some footage of the train crash being set up.
Making-Of Featurettes (33:23)
These are nice, making-of featurettes which include interviews with the cast and crew. Created for AMC, these are much better than the featurettes mentioned above, though some of them do include washed-out footage from the show.
About Hell on Wheels (6:44)
The Guns (4:49)
The Wardrobe (4:18)
The Meaning of the Railroad (4:41)
Building the Train (4:09)
Locations and Sets (4:54)
Dirty Medicine (3:48)
Character Featurettes (12:54)
More material produced for AMC; the cast talk about their characters.
Cullen Bohannon (1:49)
Elam Ferguson (1:33)
Thomas Durant (2:10)
Lily Bell (1:24)
The McGinnes Brothers (2:33)
Pawnee Killer (1:47)
Joseph Black Moon (1:38)
Episode Featurettes (52:37)
Immoral Mathematics (5:24)
A New Birth of Freedom (5:33)
Jamais Je Ne T'Oublierai (4:41)
Bread and Circuses (5:26)
Pride, Pomp, and Circumstance (4:24)
God of Chaos (5:02)
Behind-the-Scenes Footage (24:36)
Nearly half an hour of various shots showing behind-the-scenes material. I enjoyed some of this, because it truly is behind-the-scenes, it's not a couple of shots of them doing something mixed with interviews like so many "behind-the-scenes" featurettes are, it's just raw footage of them setting shots up, or discussing things. The audio isn't great, and neither are the shots themselves, but it's still interesting material for fans, though it's bit little long (I lasted about 5 minutes).
A nice trailer for the series.
What an interesting time in American history! Tensions between the North and the South were still heated at the end of the civil war, and the African Americans who gained their "freedom" still weren't treated as equals (and won't be, for a very long time). Add in the threat of the Native Americans, who view the white man as a threat, and you have the recipe for a conflict or two. I liked many of the characters, and it was fun hoping the characters I didn't like would find an untimely end. I also got a kick out of seeing some actors,including Ian Tracey, who has been a mainstay on Canadian television for years, and Wes Studi, who was awesome in The Last of the Mohicans, one of my favorite movies of all time. The show was a nice mix of gunslinging and politicking, and I kept wanting to watch more, more, more (which is why the lack of a "play all" was a tad annoying).
I've complained before about the shoddy bonus material on an eOne release (Rookie Blue, season 1), and I've been told (by eOne) that sometimes they have difficulty getting their people to the set, so they rely on material produced by others. I think this is likely true, because the material on Haven was great, and I know eOne sent people up there to shoot it. I still have issues with it though, as these problems should be caught during QC, or when the featurettes are submitted. Someone should have taken a look at the "Recreating the Past: The Making of Hell on Wheels" featurette and turned it away because it's not up to the quality that's needed for a release like this. Hell on Wheels is a set that eOne has been promoting for awhile, so it's clearly an important release for them. It actually makes me mad to see garbage put onto a DVD set; the fans deserve better, and the company should set a standard for the material they're willing to release. I love a lot of the stuff eOne releases, I just wish they'd put a bit more effort into the quality of their bonus material. Sometimes less is more, and I'd be happier having never watched that crappy featurette.
I thought this was a wonderful show, but the release was hampered by a horrible featurette. I would have liked at least one commentary track as well... maybe that'll be in season 2. You can bet I'll be keeping an eye on the second season set, and I'll raise hell if the quality of the bonus material isn't significantly better.