‘Hap And Leonard’ Figures Itself Out For Season Two

When it debuted a year ago on Sundance, Hap and Leonard seemed like the kind of show tailor-made for me to love, only I didn’t.

An adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s series of crime novels about a pair of East Texas pals who keep playing amateur sleuth, it was loaded with ’80s period charm, had abundant chemistry between stars James Purefoy and Michael Kenneth Williams (who became friends years before in NBC’s otherwise-forgettable The Philanthropist), and was filled with weird supporting characters. On paper, it was Terriers with a twang, but the opening story — a sunken treasure hunt involving Hap’s ex-wife and a group of aging ’60s radicals — was so slow and glum that I never finished the brief season, even with only two episodes to go.

The raw material was appealing enough, though, that I decided to start fresh with season two (it debuts tonight at 10; I’ve seen four of the six episodes). While not an anthology miniseries, the fact that each season is based on a different Lansdale book (this one is Mucho Mojo) provided enough of a clean slate that I was able to jump in and pick up on the fact that Hap and Leonard had each suffered a loss at the end of the first story, and then get into the new one: a mystery about a group of long-missing young black boys that Leonard’s Uncle Chester once investigated, and that ties into both Leonard’s ongoing beef with his drug-dealing neighbors and Hap’s decades-old hatred of a local judge.

The actual subject matter is in many ways heavier than last year’s, yet new showrunner John Wirth does a better job of blending in the lightness of the title characters’ friendship and the way they interact not only with each other, but the many colorful characters around town, including a sheriff (the great character actor Brian Dennehy) who appears up to no good, a lawyer (Tiffany Mack) whose interest in Hap greatly irritates Leonard, and the neighborhood matriarch (the always-welcome Irma P. Hall) who provides both safe harbor and insight into this case. The new episodes are more nimble and fun without ever undercutting the tragedies at the heart of the story, and as a result it’s a better showcase for the appealing leads. (And either Purefoy’s Texas accent has gotten more consistent, or I’ve just gotten used to it by now.)

This, of course, leads to the inevitable question of whether you can jump in here without watching the first season on Netflix. I would say yes. There’s useful information in season one — particularly about Leonard’s relationship with Uncle Chester — that might be better experienced than Googled, but all you really need to know is that Hap and Leonard have been best friends since childhood, that Leonard is gay and a Vietnam veteran, while Hap went to prison for a few years rather than fight in that conflict, and that both have grown accustomed to life on the margins of society. (When the new season begins, Hap is working as an auto-mechanic, which is a step up from when he was picking roses last time.)

Some shows figure themselves out in time, while others never get past untapped potential. I’m glad Hap and Leonard got better, and that its format made it easy to jump back in for the good stuff.