First look Amazon TV review: Hand of God (Episode 1 and 2)
Ivan Radford | On 03, Sep 2015
As the old saying goes, when a TV show starts with a naked Ron Perlman chanting in a fountain, you know you’re in for a good time. It’s a bold opening for Amazon’s new series, Hand of God, the kind of unexpected sight that makes it clear this isn’t your typical TV fare.
Just how unusual, though, takes times to appreciate.
The pilot, which was released last year through Amazon’s now-established scheme of asking customers to vote for what gets commissioned, introduces us to Judge Pernell Harris, a hard-living, law-bending man, whose daughter-in-law, Jocelyn, has been raped and whose son, after being forced to watch the assault, is now in a coma after shooting himself. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that he is starting to lose his mind.
Pernell becomes obsessed with trying to avenge the attack, a righteous quest given added holy fuel by his conversion at the fledgling Hand of God Christian movement. He starts to see visions and hear voices, which he believes are sent by God, that tell him who to track down.
Ben Watkins’ script is a gift for Ron Perlman, who towers over the material with a manic presence. He’s crazy, he’s angry, he’s powerful and yet still understated – no mean feat for a guy who stabs his son’s body in the foot and starts crawling around the hospital floor following the blood stream. He’s matched by Julian Morris, who is enjoyably slippery as the charismatic Paul Curtis, more con artist than man of the cloth; watching him and his partner, Alicia (Elizabeth McLaughlin), seduce bank managers and woo piano shop owners to do the Lord’s work is always a sleazy treat.
But there is, in the opening two episodes, a lack of ambiguity in the series’ attitude towards Pernell’s faith that belies the show’s title: whenever visions occur, they are presented as less the hand of god and more the delusions of a broken mind. Combined with the consciously dubious portrayal of Morris’ deceitful pastor, there is never any question over whether Harris is acting out God’s plan or not, even though his first hallucination turns out to be correct.
If that undermines Perlman’s central conflict – Curtis, hapless in the face of violence, snake-like in the company of money, lies to Pernell that obeying the visions is guaranteed to heal his son – that’s because Hand of God isn’t necessarily about that. As Harris recruits a pardoned fellow convert (an even more unbalanced Garret Dillahunt), the brutality of his sanctimonious justice turns the show into more an exploration of what extents people will go to in the name of religion.
But the show is also exploring a number of other issues. There’s the struggle of Alona Tal’s Jocelyn – presented as a fighter more than a victim – to move on with her life, despite Pernell’s insistence of keeping her husband on life support, holding everyone in limbo. There’s the town’s mayor (The Wire’s Andre Royo) trying to secure a hefty paycheck through dodgy dealings. And all the while, there’s Dana Delany as Pernell’s suffering wife, trying to deal with their son’s effective passing and her husband’s erratic behaviour.
Another show might treat Jocelyn as the main figure, or focus more on the sane wife’s perspective. Both feel overlooked here, while Royo’s mayor seems equally irrelevant to proceedings, but this slightly uneven mesh of themes and subplots is part of Hand of God’s curious charm. Shot with grit and gloss by TV-first-timer Marc Forster – one sequence involving a piano is edited with rude and darkly hilarious wit – what starts out as a straightforward drama turns into a show that isn’t afraid to stray from the narrow path of convention. By the end of Episode 2, the series has begun to tackle everything from religion and politics to rape and the right to life. Most TV shows wouldn’t dare to aim for such big topics all at the same time. Held aloft by the volatile presence of Perlman, Hand of God emerges as a confident production that asks such questions with wide-ranging conviction.
One climactic confrontation, delivered by Delany with a subtlety that could easily be absent from such a larger-than-life premise, ends on a lingering shot of a fish in a bag of water. The fluid slowly begins to leak out. Does the fish survive? Hand of God isn’t about to tell you the answer – and it’s that which keeps you intrigued. Despite the occasional flicker of doubt, the show works in mysterious ways.
All episodes of Hand of God Season 1 are available to watch on Amazon Prime Video from Friday 4th September.