Hap and Leonard is Excellent Noir TV

Hap and Leonard, based on the books by Joe R. Lansdale, translates beautifully to television.

After watching a preview trailer for SundanceTV’s new series, Hap and Leonard, my initial impression of this noir-infused show was “Cinemax’s Banshee with a quirky sense of humor.” I was right about the quirky part, but noir, with all its violence-drenched trappings, is where the obvious similarities end. Dramas of this sort don’t truck in hope, but at its heart, Hap and Leonard is very much about living the American Dream.

Like many successful TV shows, Hap and Leonard draws inspiration from very rich source material, namely the eponymous swamp noir novels penned by Joe R. Lansdale (also one of the show’s producers), who is currently writing the tenth installment of the series. What this means is we’re presented from the start with a textured, multilayered show that understands everything about its characters and their environs.

Motivations are as complicated as the pacing is measured and slow. Multiple agendas abound and backstories are deep. Sure, Sundance is billing Hap and Leonard as a six-episode event, but based on the first half of the season, the show’s creators have packed more content into three episodes than some dramas do into an entire season.

So what’s this show about, and who are we dealing with, exactly?

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Like all good crime noir (swamp-based or otherwise), we’re presented with people who have fallen short of their potential, muddling through half-lived lives. In Hap Collins’s case, we’re introduced to a man who came of age in the tumultuous ’70s, when the country was not only at war in Vietnam, but also with itself. The counterculture was in full swing, bringing with it free love and conscientious objection.

As a younger man, Hap is faced with some serious choices that are still impacting his life almost two decades later. He’s not so much a shadow of his former self as he is the shadow itself—insubstantial, transient, and disappearing into his surroundings. He’s not a bad man, just unremarkable. Unhappy, too. A man in his forties, he’s in need of a mulligan, but without the wherewithal to make such a thing happen. As played by James Purefoy, it’s easy to accept Hap as a man who no longer remembers what it meant to be young or vital. Worse still, he’s forgotten what to means to be necessary to the world at large.

For Hap’s hot-headed best friend, Leonard Pine, as a gay black man, he is often held in contempt by the country he once served in the jungles of Vietnam. His friendship with Hap is not defined by race or sexuality. They are simply two men who care for one another in a way that defies society’s notions of what constitutes an acceptable friendship.

That being said, one gets the sense early on that Leonard’s loyalties may run a bit deeper than Hap is willing to acknowledge. There is no tension in this; the two men share an emotional shorthand that speaks volumes about the bond they share. Leonard has Hap’s back, and Hap his. It’s as simple as that, thanks in no small part to an excellent turn by a gravelly yet vulnerable Michael Kenneth Williams (who is basically great in everything).

But this dynamic is thrown out of balance when Hap’s ex-wife Trudy shows up out of the blue. They have old feelings and unfinished business, she and Hap do. It would be easy to present Trudy as the femme fatale, but as played by Christina Hendricks, she imbues the character with the weightiness of lived-in failure. Like Hap, Trudy was once a wide-eyed idealist, optimistic about their shared future and firm in her belief that love would conquer all. Such is the hubris of youth, though. The future she once viewed from afar is now upon her, and she has fallen short of changing the world. And yet it’s her unexpected arrival in Hap’s life that sets the whole sordid plot in motion that begins with an unusual request and the promise of immediate wealth.

Except it’s not so immediate. The bounty in question is a sunken treasure of sorts. Specifically, it’s the money from a bank heist gone wrong two decades earlier. The cash and the getaway car are both at the bottom of a river. The only problem is no one, not even the authorities, know exactly where in the river it is, if it’s even still down there at all. As it turns out, the search for this buried treasure is just as important as its inherent financial gains. The hunt through the woods and marshes of east Texas affords Hap, Leonard, and Trudy shots at reconciliation, at redemption, and at that much-vaunted chance to reinvent themselves for a new age.

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Of course, there are always roadblocks on the path to happiness, especially when ill-gotten booty is at stake. Enter Howard (Bill Sage), Trudy’s latest ex-husband who’s a former con and flower child who now sees the recovery of this money as a means to saving the world from itself. Howard is joined in his quest by two fellow would-be revolutionaries, Paco and Chub. Like everyone else, these are men with complicated pasts, who don’t quite fit in anywhere except in the company of similarly damaged outcasts.

After three episodes, I found myself wanting to learn more about these people. I’m invested in their potential windfall even as I’m leery of what such a fortune might do to characters who have lived much of their lives in the margins. Shining a spotlight into the darkest corners of society is the best way to chase the shadows out of existence.

Hap and Leonard debuts March 2nd at 10p m on SundanceTV Be sure to come back as we’ll be reviewing the show more in-depth every week.