“So what’s it with the two of you anyway?”
That’s the question a lot of people will ask at the end of the first episode of SundanceTV’s Hap and Leonard. 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 tension, though, the six-episode thriller still manages to ramp up the excitement, as Trudy’s gang push Hap and Leonard into a web of crime, carnage and, inevitably, incompetence. Hendricks is gorgeously deceitful, still possessing enough charisma to make us believe that she really does sincerely love Hap. Her sidekicks are as dumb as it gets, but the script shares that optimistic view of everyone, balancing out the essential bitterness – each character is just clueless or cruel enough to be a hero or villain, but still nuanced enough to be sympathetic or entertaining. Howard (Bill Sage), Trudy’s new squeeze, gets just enough time to realise that Trudy has stronger feelings for Hap than for him – and we get just enough time to appreciate it, amid the chaotic string of consequences that unfolds. Jeff Pope as runt-of-the-litter Chub, meanwhile, is hilariously pathetic, but even he compromises his loyalties to stick up for Leonard, when racial insults are bandied about.
Those come courtesy of our real bad guys: drug dealer Soldier (Jimmi Simpson) and his partner-in-narcotics Angel (Pollyanna McIntosh). Simpson, who lept from House of Cards supporting role to one of Westworld’s lead players, is sensational, sinking his teeth into every bit of outrageous nasty dialogue with a relish that’s only rivalled by McIntosh’s outlandish outfits.
The plot doesn’t get much more complicated than them also chasing the fabled money, but it doesn’t have to: the pleasure lies in seeing these people interact, as odd and unlikely their collision may be. Hap and Leonard spend most of the second half tied up, as if to emphasise the fact that the show can be suspenseful even when static, while the best sequence involves a nail, a hammer and a kitchen table.
“Pain, or the threat of pain, clears the mind,” declares Soldier in between his torturous games of torment. As they dive for the money, bury the money, dig up the money and fight over the money, it all erupts, Game of Thrones-style, in the penultimate episode – a cacophany of gloriously gratuitous violence. The cast, particularly Purefoy, have a knack of giving everything an off-the-cuff vibe that feels unplanned and genuine, but there’s subtle character work going on underneath every bout of action: our left-wing characters, all so keen to avoid war, find themselves, and discover where exactly they’ll cross the line of their principles, as they face the unavoidable threat of conflict. (Some, of course, already compromised just in the name of some extra dollars.)
The result is melancholic and funny, action-packed but uneventful, brief (at an easy-to-binge six hours) but stuffed with details – it’s a mood poem that grips like a vice. And pulling us through the Western swamp is the engaging bond between our two leads, explored in a gentle string of flashbacks to the fateful night that brought these two men, and their fathers, together. There’s hope and affection in this black-and-white partnership that was borne out of a meaner, less understanding age, and that rebuking of the tradition they were brought up in is never forgotten by either guy. They joke about the fact that life isn’t like a TV series, where characters talk about the lessons they’ve learned before the next episode comes along, but their friendship is an unchanging point in this corny narrative. “Remember when I told you you weren’t my type?” says Leonard with a smile. “Just wanted you to know I meant it.” What is it with the two of them? As their bromantic adventures play out like True Detective with a warm heart, all we know is that we can’t wait to hang out with them more.
Hap and Leonard Season 1 is available to watch online in the UK exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in the UK. Season 2 starts on Friday 17th March, with new episodes arriving weekly.