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TV review – Everyone should be singing “Hap and Leonard, hallelujah”

It has become highly fashionable to discuss current US television as a ‘golden age’. Certainly judging by my social media streams discussing various TV shows (usually American, but with the occasional British breakthrough and Doctor Who) is as, if not more prevalent that talking about movies. So it’s something of a mystery why Hap and Leonard seems to be flying under the radar. Possibly because it is on Amazon streaming in the UK, which generally gets a much lower profile when it comes to broadsheet and blogger coverage than the more established Netflix. Well here are a few words to hopefully persuade you to give this terrific series a look.

It took me a while to come round to watch Hap and Leonard. I tore through the Joe R. Lansdale novels upon which the show is based in my early twenties, and was frankly nervous about another TV version of something I loved so dearly two decades ago (the watered down TV version of John Constantine springs to mind). But prompted by a few positive mentions from people with some modicum of taste (podcaster MJ Smith take a bow, @you_total_cult on twitter), and the fact that show runners Jim Mickle and Nick Damici had already made a good stab at adapting Lansdale with the 2014 film Cold in July I decided to take the plunge.

Well now I just feel like a total fool, because Hap and Leonard is about as near perfect an adaptation of Lansdale’s work as I count possibly imagine. Each series of the show adapts one of the novels over six episodes. The pace is leisurely, but never saggy, and the added scope of the TV format allows for a deeper exploration of not only the two principal characters, but also Lansdale’s colourful and occasionally grotesque supporting players. The more constrained timing of a feature film would pare many of these characters back to mere sketches, but over six forty-odd minute episodes there is time to explore.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Who are Hap Collins and Leonard Pine? Review follows…

Hap and Leonard Jim Mickle and Nick Damici’s Sundance Channel adaptation of Joe R. Lansdales ‘swamp noir’ novel Savage Season has unfortunately seemed to fly below most peoples’ radar in the UK.

Set in the eighties, as the Reagan era segues into the Bush Sr era, the series takes place in the humid swamplands of East Texas (although shot in Louisiana). Hap Collins (James Purefoy) and Leonard Pine (Michael Kenneth Williams) are two friends entering middle age and barely scrapping an existence near the bottom of America’s economic class system.

Initially it is difficult to see what could connect these two men. Hap is white, straight, and has a prison record after declaring himself a conscientious objector to avoid the Vietnam draft. Hap’s former liberalism has collapsed into cynicism after the wife who persuaded him to adopt this stand left him.

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James Purefoy and Micheal K. Williams

Leonard is African American, gay, and a decorated Vietnam veteran. Cynical in his own way, Leonard is a Republican (something not made explicit in the first TV series) who loves country and western, wears a cowboy hat and boots, and is frankly a total bad ass.

The two men are equally divergent in their approach to romance. Hap tends to fall hard. Beneath his world weary exterior is a hopeless romantic. His naivety in matters of the heart is what leads him and Leonard into a very sticky situation. As Leonard puts it with characteristic bluntness “A stiff dick ain’t got no conscience”. In contrast Leonard keeps romance at a distance, his upbringing and socialisation have encrusted him in emotional armour. He has an on-and-off relationship with Raoul (Enrique Murciano), a nurse, but the relationship is fraught with tension due to his intimacy issues. Frankly most of his relationships, romantic or not, are fraught with tension.

The roots of the mens’ friendship grow very deep and provide a backstory laced through the initial six episodes. Flashbacks slowly reveal a childhood trauma that has bonded them for life. People constantly joke that the two men are lovers, indeed this is a running gag between them, but the Hap and Leonard really explores a platonic love between two men that transcends their divergences of race and sexuality. I am normally loathe the use of this word in this context, but this is a series with ‘heart’.

In ‘Savage Season’ Hap’s estranged wife Trudy (Christina Hendricks) reappears and drags the men into a scheme to find a sum of money that lies in a car crashed decades before somewhere in the swamplands. Trudy’s current beau Howard (Bill Sage) has gathered a motley collection of hippie idealists and plans to use the cash to ‘change the world’ in some vaguely defined way. Howard learnt of the money from a cellmate during a spell in prison, but needs someone with local knowledge to hunt it down. Hap is still hopelessly besotted with Trudy, and drags the unwilling Leonard into the scheme.

Obviously best laid plans go very awry. A killer couple, Soldier and Angel (Jimmi Simpson and Pollyanna McKintosh) are wreaking havoc raising an inconvenient police presence. Some of Howard’s associates are antagonising the locals. And Hap and Trudy rekindle their romance causing Leonard grief.

The plot may sound slight, but what elevates the material is the warmth to be found in Lansdale’s hard-boiled characters, and the subtlety with which complicated issues of class, race, masculinity, sexuality and friendship are raised. Despite the eighties setting (which along with the characters’ poverty eliminates the irritation of cellphones), Hap and Leonard is a show with depressing contemporary relevance. The second season (based on the novel Mucho Mojo) makes racialtension far more overt and is like a sledgehammer blow to the kneecaps (this is not a criticism, but a natural escalation from the first season.

Robert Altman once said that if he got his casting right, then 90% of his work as a director was done. Mickle and Damaci have taken this on board and the series is among the best cast shows currently on the air.

Somerset born Purefoy has never been better. With a great accent that gets thicker over the two seasons, Purefoy looks like a well worn shoe, and I mean this as a compliment. Despite the character’s sad sack demeanour Hap has a soft eyed puppyish quality that makes his amorous entanglements perfectly plausible. Purefoy has been stuck in a lot of genre dreck since his terrific portrayal of Mark Anthony in the epic TV series Rome, but he seizes on this part like a starving dog that has stolen a juicy bone from a butcher’s window.

As Leonard, Williams (probably still best know as Omar from The Wire) brings a steel-eyed determination and a massive chip on his shoulder. Fury is constantly threatening to leak out of the character’s very pores. The series makes the source of his anger plain, not only the omnipresent racism he faces every day, but the way his sexuality makes him an outsider even in his own community. When one of Howard’s white hippy crew tries to empathise Leonard shuts him down “you’ll never understand my anger”.

LGBT characters have become more visible on TV in recent years, but often in a vanilla version like the fashionable and glamorous lesbian characters that seem de rigueur in DC superhero shows. A show like Banshee may have featured a kick ass trans character, but it never allowed them a sex life. This is something Hap and Leonard has no time for. In its own way, it feels groundbreaking. True Blood’s Layfayette Reynolds broke ground in genre TV but even he was not a primary character like Leonard.

Among the rest of season one’s cast, Hendricks is given her most substantial role since Mad Men. Trudy is not a standard femme fatale, she is a rounded character with depth. While her leaving Hap in prison seems brutal, the writing is careful not to demonise her as a ‘bad woman’ and presents a compelling and often heart breaking back story.

As much as these characters feel real and grounded, season one goes wildly over the top with its villains in the most entertaining way. Jimmi Simpson may look like John Boy Walton (even though the actor is 41) but Soldier is a genuinely frightening psychopath, constantly monologuing, psychologically manipulative, racist and sexist. The actor chews the scenery like an industrial wood chipper. Between this and HBO’s reboot of Westworld, I am now a complete fan.

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Pollyanna McKintosh

Scottish actress Pollyanna McKintosh has a striking physical presence as Angel. On first appearance her wardrobe is so astonishing there is a danger of jaw dislocation. She doesn’t ever dial down the style. The character looks she has walked out of Liquid Sky as reimagined by Russ Meyer. Since her breakthrough role in Lucky McKee’s horror film The Woman (2011) McKintosh has appeared in a number of little seen genre films, but TV has recently woken up to her commanding screen presence (she has recently appeared in The Walking Dead’s seventh season, and has been promoted to series regular for its eighth).

Series show runners Mickle and Damici come from an indie film background having co-written four previous features which Mickle directed. Beginning in horror films (if you haven’t seen Stake Land, you should remedy that ASAP) the two have gradually moved into crime features but all their movies share a rural sensibility that carries over into Hap and Leonard.

Hap and Leonard can be a tough watch in places. When things turn dark, they turn very dark. However, even in the series most violent moments (episode five of the first season is appropriately ‘savage’) it never tips into gratuitous violence. Everything flows from the characters, who are people that you care about, and so when violence happens to them. It really hurts.

Hap and Leonard deserves to be seen by a broader audience as one of the most interesting TV crime shows among a very strong crop. So, now that Mickle and Damici have shown its possible to do Joe R. Lansdale proud in the long-form TV format, can we have a good Carl Hiaasen adaptation next please?

Hap and Leonard seasons one and two are currently available in the UK on Amazon Prime.

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