Spoiler warning: If you aren’t caught up through the penultimate episode, “Pie a la Mojo,” do so before reading too far ahead.
There is a lot on TV, I get it — I watch as much as I can, and even the best shows can get repetitive. But one of the best selling points I have for SundanceTV’s Hap and Leonard is that there is not another show like it. The series follows two very different best friends, played by James Purefoy and Michael K. Williams, in East Texas in the 1980s, as they get caught up in heists and cons and even murder. But Season 2 hones in on some very complex stories about race in an emotionally authentic, but still surprisingly humorous way. Before the season finale, I was able to talk to the series’ showrunner John Wirth about Mucho Mojo’s politics, the show’s balance of light and dark themes, and the wonderful Irma P. Hall, who plays MeMaw. Wirth calls the series his “subversive little show. Not everybody gets it.” But if you do, and if you’ve been with it through Season 2, you’ll know it’s had an extraordinary run this year in telling a very difficult story. (You’ll also know that like the diner waitress, you’ll want to come back in another life as Tiffany Mack‘s Florida Grange).
This year’s story has also stretched through time, as Hap and Leonard’s investigation of missing black children that the sheriff’s department has been apathetic about brings up a crime committed by the Klan long ago, as well as a string of murders that are connected to current events. I asked Wirth if there was a sense this year in adapting Mucho Mojo — which is the second book in Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series — of how important this particular story was. “I think for us we were trying to tell a story, and we were trying not to comment on the story we were telling. As James Purefoy says, ‘we were trying to tell the truth, and not tell anybody what the truth was that we were telling them.’”
That truth comes through in the show’s authenticity, which I said I’m particularly sensitive to as a southerner. “Yeah, and I’m very sensitive to it myself — I’m not a southerner, [but] I did four seasons of Hell on Wheels, and Anson Mount, the star of the show, is from Tennessee,” Wirth said. “That character was also a southern character, so we really sort of assiduously paid attention to southern mores and the differences between southern people and northern people. Anson always had a thing when we cast the show, and actors would do their ‘TV southern accent’ … it would drive him nuts. We do pay attention to that.”
In addition to that authenticity, part of what makes the storytelling so powerful this season is the gravity of the events Leonard and Hap are investigating. After spending so much time focusing on the details of the season’s arc with the serial killings, Wirth said that “I was very surprised to people’s reaction to the dark nature of the story, and sort of had to step back myself and see how dark it was, and what we were actually talking about in terms of race relations in America. Our story is a fictional story and not based on anything in the world, but there were the Atlanta child murders and what’s going on DC now, which is very current and kinda makes our story very relevant and very political.”
And yet, the show also has a quirky sense of humor that never becomes glib, even in the face of such serious crimes. Wirth says he learned how to balance those two very disparate things from, unexpectedly, Don Johnson:
“I remember one time I was working on this show called Nash Bridges, with Don Johnson and Cheech [Marin], and those guys were very colorful dressers, and their wardrobe was very colorful. And one time someone on the staff had written a line where they had arrived on a murder scene and they look down at the dead guy, and we had Nash Bridges make some comment about the guys’ clothes. Don Johnson called and he was livid. He was pissed, he went crazy. Because he said, ‘there’s a dead person lying on the floor, and you are giving me a line of dialogue where I’m making fun of that persons’ wardrobe?’ And as I’ve said many times over, all of the good lessons I’ve learned about writing for television I’ve learned from Don Johnson the hardest way, but the point was well taken you know. So I’ve tried to keep, in my own writing and within the writers room, let’s keep it light but let’s not make fun of the subject matter that we’re writing about, let’s treat that with all seriousness, let’s tell the truth and let’s not comment on this in any way shape or form, and let people draw from it what they want to draw from it.”