SundanceTV has become a respite for a certain kind of TV watcher. With Top of the Lake, The Honorable Woman, Rectify, and the French import The Returned, AMC’s sister channel has cultivated a set of thoughtful and atmospheric series that, in most cases (including the wonderfully manic Deutschland 83 and the ok, but not excellent Red Road), use their locations to the fullest effect, creating stories that could not be told anywhere else.
That aesthetic is also true of their latest series, Hap and Leonard, based on the novels of Joe. R. Lansdale. Located in East Texas (though filmed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana), the story is distinctly southern without ever feeling like it’s trying to be. The same is true of the series’ retro 80s setting. Though the shadow of the 60s hangs over all of the major players, the show is casual about its place in time, using it as a seasoning rather than as the main course.
Hap and Leonard stars James Purefoy as the affable Hap Collins, while his best friend Leonard Pine (played by Michael K. Williams) is his angry, sarcastic foil. Leonard is a black, gay, Vietnam vet, while Hap is a white, straight, and a pacifist (or used to be — he doesn’t subscribe much to ideals these days), and the two are closer than kin. But once Hap’s ex-wife Trudy (Christina Hendricks) shows up like a femme fatal with an idea to make them all a lot of money, Hap and Leonard solidifies itself into a pulpy tale of heists and murder, all set against the lush, sleepy backdrop of the southern hinterlands.
The series, which will run for six episodes, cruises along its overarching treasure hunt tale, but also finds plenty of time for wonderful character development and engaging side-stories. Nick Damici and Jim Mickle, who adapted the stories for a series (Mickle also serves as the director), settle into the right pace for the show by its second episode, with an escalation at the end of Episode 3 (the last available for review) that seems to necessitate a binge-watch for the rest of the season. (In other words, if you’re on the fence after the premiere, stick with it a little bit longer). It succeeds in being strange, funny, tense, and emotional, with the relationship between Leonard and Hap — who behave like brothers and often like kids — as its shining core.
While the show’s best scenes are between the two leads (both of whom are great, but Williams is — per usual — a scene-stealer), Damici and Mickle have also populated the story with colorful characters (like Jeff Pope’s huge, bumbling Chubs, and Neil Sandilands’ physically scarred revolutionary Paco) that instill a natural quirkiness. The series also uses its flashbacks sparingly yet effectively to show, and not tell, the origins of these characters’ connections. But the series’ tone and storytelling style isn’t always consistent, and its editing and continuity can be too twitchy. Still, these are small complaints for a story that, ultimately, is so easy to get swept up in.
While Hap, Leonard, Trudy, Trudy’s third ex-husband Howard (Bill Sage), and his motley crew of treasure hunters search for money they believe is stuck in the mud at the bottom of a river, a local drug dealer (Jimmi Simpson) and his blood-thirsty girlfriend (Pollyanna McIntosh) appear to add an element of chaos to the story as they enact a murderous spree through town. Though it doesn’t connect, initially, to Hap and Leonard’s central story, it is clearly spiraling towards them in a way that feels gleefully unhinged.
Those brutal bursts of violence also wake up what might otherwise be a sleepy tale, as Hap and Trudy work through their feelings for one another, and Leonard grumbles through his friendships and relationships, never letting his guard down (he and Trudy often spar verbally over their possessiveness of Hap). But while those savage moments don’t always feel like they fit the show’s regular aesthetic, it does make the series a Carl Hiaasen-esque tale (Texas style) of mystery and mayhem, which is a very good thing.
While Howard’s hippie gang wants to take the money and set up a Green Peace kind of nonprofit to change the world, Hap just wants to be with Trudy and settle into a life where she can leave her job at the diner, and he can stop being a day laborer who has to scrape together pennies to pay for basic groceries. It’s one of the simple things about Hap and Leonard — like Leonard’s penchant for Nilla wafers, and his love of old country songs — that grounds this clever, profane, and rich series deep in the East Texas soil, inviting you to pop open a Dr. Pepper and park yourself there for awhile, too.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television
Hap and Leonard premieres March 2nd on SundanceTV.