“So what’s it with the two of you anyway?”
That’s the question a lot of people will be asking at the end of the first episode of SundanceTV’s Hap and Leonard, available to watch in the UK on Amazon Prime Video. In an on-demand age, some series are made for you to dive in and lap up as quickly as possible. Hap and Leonard is the kind of TV show you can wallow in, soaking up every last detail.
The show is based on the novels by Joe Lansdale and follows the titular two friends: Hap (James Purefoy) and Leonard (Michael Kenneth Williams). What’s the deal with them? When we meet them, they have a job picking roses – a job they soon lose and end up back at home, sitting around, playing with guns and buying Dr. Pepper from the supermarket. In other words, they hang out. And that’s about it.
But this is far from the modern world of friends Snapchatting and binge-viewing their afternoons away – a fact that becomes clear immediately from the period stylings of the opening sequence, which sees a getaway go wrong and a car wind up in a lake. Dukes of Hazzard, eat your heart out. The money that ends up sitting on the riverbed blows in the direction of Hap and Leonard, courtesy of Hap’s ex-wife, Trudy (Christina Hendricks), who makes the kind of offer that we all like to think of as being made every day in the 1980s.
The programme plays upon that retro stereotyping with real smarts, immediately conjuring up the dusty, lackadaisical attitude that goes with words like “throwback” and “noir”. Hendricks is in full femme fatale mode, pressing Hap’s buttons like a ZX Spectrum keyboard, while Purefoy quietly stews in her gaze, letting himself be heated up – much to the displeasure of Kenneth Williams’ best friend. While the crime’s the thing, though, it’s not the main thrust of this pilot, which instead takes its time to establish its characters and relationships. After all, what’s the rush?
What emerges, as Hap crosses paths with Trudy’s current gang (a bunch of washed-up revolutionaries), is a study of the past and how we perceive it; the show is set in the 1980s, but the characters are forever looking back at the 1960s, when things were cooler, money was above water, and people’s hippy ideals weren’t fraying at the edges. Everything is filled with that vaguely rose-tinted sense of history, from the lighting of Hap’s trailer home to his battered, worn-out jeans. It’s a nostalgic show about nostalgia, steeped in hopeful bitterness, like a refreshing glass of lemonade with a slightly-too-big chunk of lemon sitting in the middle.
“What happened to you?” asks Trudy, as she sits in his kitchen, slowing swallowing up the screen. “Life,” Hap replies. “And you.”
That subtle leaning on tropes but using them as springboards for substance as well as style is what gives Hap and Leonard its intriguing, engaging appeal; Purefoy’s East Texas charm and Kenneth Williams’ hot-tempered intensity fit together like old friends really do, with each one enjoying the chance to deliver the pulpy dialogue. Behind the camera, creators Jim Mickle and Nick Damici nail that vibe like it’s second nature to them – a quick viewing of their previous adaptation of Lansdale’s Cold in July for the screen confirms it really is. Like Penny Dreadful’s ability to mix high art with genre trash, the result is classy and cheap to intoxicating degrees.
Under the surface linger a bunch of simmering tensions, from Leonard’s distrust of Trudy to Hap’s hopeful grasping to get out of poverty. There’s a wider undercurrent of cultural context too, as we get subtle nods to Vietnam vet Leonard’s homosexuality – “A hard dick knows no conscience,” is a wonderful, repeated line – and the disfavour that it curries with Leonard’s uncle. Throughout, it’s the duo’s murmured loyalty to each other that draws you into their engrossing, character-driven world, littered with old boots and straw hats. For those who want more pressing narrative concerns, though, there are signs of a Coen brothers-esque strain of dark humour – and equally dark violence – as into that Western swamp stroll some dangerous new faces. Just as your eyes get accustomed to the beiges, greens and blues, they have to adjust to the sight of shocking pick and red – a brilliantly offbeat burst of colour that suggests Hap and Leonard could be one of the most surprising televisual treats of the year. What’s it with the two of them? Even at this slow pace, you’ll be looking forward to finding out.
Hap and Leonard is available to watch online exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, with new episodes arriving every Friday, starting Friday 4th March.