SundanceTV’s latest, Hap and Leonard, wants to fill the gap left by Justified. Between its literary heritage (it’s based on a series of novels by Joe R. Lansdale) and the backwoods crime setting (1980s Texas instead of Kentucky), a lot of the same elements are here. The premise is simple: two life-long best friends — Hap (James Purefoy), a white, divorced draft dodger, and Leonard (Michael K. Williams), an openly gay, black Vietnam vet — find themselves down on their luck when they get fired from their jobs in the rose fields. When Hap’s femme fatale of an ex-wife, Trudy (Christina Hendricks), returns asking for a dangerous favor, these two find themselves on a quest to find a missing $1 million. While the small scope makes for a tight narrative, there are many different elements at play that don’t necessarily fit together well.
First, the good: Purefoy and Williams have a great rapport and their relationship is believable from the start. Their friendship is one born out of pain, and they’ve been through hell together, and that emotional weight hangs on every interaction. Hendricks is also expectedly good as a woman who has been wronged and done wrong who serves as a wedge between the two friends. Few can play a tough-as-nails woman with a hint of vulnerability as well as Hendricks, and she banishes the specter of Mad Men‘s Joan as a trailer park siren. The uneasy truce between these three works well, and is enough to propel the story forward at an intriguing rate. In the three episodes screened for critics, the relationships evolve in believable ways, and there is sure to be some painful, yet necessary, developments on all fronts. Leonard’s struggles in particular are compelling: between the deeply entrenched racism and homophobia of that time and place, he is a man of anger who sees the world for the ugly place that it so often is. The comparisons to Omar from The Wire will be inevitable, but Williams doesn’t recycle his previous role. Leonard may have rage issues, but Williams imbues the character with some touchingly vulnerable moments.
However, the biggest problem with Hap and Leonard is that the different elements at play don’t always mesh well. Trudy’s current boyfriend, Howard (Bill Sage), who gathered the intel regarding the mission cash while in prison, and his cronies, Paco (Neil Sandilands) and Chubs (Jeff Pope), aren’t nearly as well developed, coming off like rejects from season one of True Detective. We are told that Howard is probably one to fear, but there’s a distinct lack of menace. Instead of invigorating the story when Hap and Leonard visit their decrepit hippie compound, the show gets bogged down in caricature. Additionally, there is an encroaching terror in the form of Soldier (Jimmi Simpson) and Angel (Pollyanna McIntosh), who are on the trail of our protagonists, leaving a bloody wake behind them. While their presence is clearly building to some sort of violent stand off, this Natural Born Killers-esque duo feels like they’re on a completely different show. Perhaps their presence will make more sense when they finally collide, but for now, they feel like an incongruent addition.