Review: Hap and Leonard 1×1-1×2 (US: SundanceTV; UK: Amazon Instant Video)

Why is this on my TV?

In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, SundanceTV
In the UK: Thursdays (I’m guessing), Amazon Instant Video

When two actors who have starred in a TV show together are cast in a second show, generally it’s for one of two reasons:

  1. Their pairing in the first show was very popular and the producers would like to recreate that chemistry
  2. Individually, they’ve got good followings so together there’ll be two sets of fans watching.

Now, with the casting of James Purefoy and Michael K Williams in SundanceTV’s new 80s-set ‘swamp noir’ Hap and Leonard, I think we can eliminate option 1. About seven people watched The Philanthropist, in which billionaire playboy Purefoy has a Damascene conversion and decides to go around the world being a hands-on charity worker (albeit one with oodles of cash), protected in his endeavours by bodyguard Williams.

No one’s tuning in with the hope of seeing that chemistry recreated.

So that leaves option 2. But I’m still unsure that’s the answer.

Michael K Williams I get. He plays the eponymous Leonard, a black gay criminal with a penchant for guns and beating up the neighbourhood gangsters. If the casting agent hadn’t taken one look at the script and immediately said, “Hey, why don’t we get the guy who played Omar in The Wire?” I reckon that would have been grounds for instant dismissal.

Purefoy, though, is a bit of a mystery. Don’t get me wrong – I like Purefoy, I thought he was great in Rome and I’ve even spoken to him on occasion, when he seemed jolly nice and full of interesting opinions that I have outrageously quoted on many more occasions.

But he’s a public school-educated, Shakespearean actor. He’s not the first person said casting agent should immediately think of when trying to cast Hap, a white trash American from Texas who fought in Vietnam and who ends up committing crimes with his ex-wife (Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks) when he and Leonard lose their fruit-picking job to a bunch of illegal immigrants.

I just don’t get it.

I tell you what else I don’t get. Hap and Leonard, that’s what. Because I left that first episode thinking “WTF did I just watch?” and I’m not sure episode two clears things up any more for me.

Here’s a trailer.

Set in the late 1980s, “Hap and Leonard” is a darkly comic swamp noir story of two best friends, one femme fatale, a crew of washed-up revolutionaries, a pair of murderous psycho-killers, some lost loot and the fuzz. Based on the novels by Joe R. Lansdale, the six-hour series event follows Hap Collins (James Purefoy), an East Texas white boy with a weakness for Southern women, and Leonard Pine (Michael Kenneth Williams), a gay, black Vietnam vet with a hot temper. When Hap’s seductive ex-wife Trudy (Christina Hendricks) resurfaces with a deal they can’t refuse, a simple get-rich-quick scheme snowballs into bloody mayhem. Chock full of eccentric characters, “Hap and Leonard” provides a country twist on the classic mystery thriller. 

Is it any good?
I’m not sure I actually have any idea at all whether it’s any good after those two episodes. To be fair, it’s not bad and the second episode is better than the first. But I’d not sure what its aims are, so I can’t really tell if it’s achieving them.

I’m guessing that Hap and Leonard is supposed to be a character-driven, buddy-buddy comedy of some kind. Except I didn’t find Hap and Leonard interesting, endearing, charming or pretty much anything else except there on my TV screen. Leonard is basically Omar again, so has that in his favour, but Hap is just a ‘Lone Star Loser’ and I can’t think of a single interesting thing about him – other than being married to Christina Hendricks.

It could also be a crime drama in the style of Fargo, just set in the South. Hap and Leonard are slightly bumbling criminals yet they are gods among men to the 60s burn-outs who want them and Hendricks to help find a car full of cash that ended up at the bottom of a river, Hap being the only one who knows said river’s location. 

In hot pursuit of the chief of the burn-outs are husband and wife psychopaths Soldier (Breakout Kings‘ Jimmi Simpson) and Angel (Pollyanna McIntosh from MI High and Bob Servant Independent). I’m not sure exactly which genre they’ve escaped from. It might be Pulp Fiction, it might be science-fiction. But when they turn up at the end of the first, relatively mundane, typically dull for Sundance episode, they’re a real game-changer. You, too, will think “WTF did I just watch?” when they turn up.

It’s all very confusing. I even tried Wikipedia for help, given there are no fewer than 11 Hap and Leonard books on which the show is based. However, while the characters are the same, the plots and supporting cast seem very different, so I’m not sure that was much help.

So at the end of it all, I’m no wiser. It’s definitely a bit faster paced, a bit more accessible and a bit funnier than the usual Sundance high dramas (Rectify, The Red Road). There are decent character moments in it, too. But for the life of me, I can’t work out why it’s on my TV and why I should watch it.  


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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