This review contains spoilers for the Hap and Leonard premiere, “Savage Season.”
Hap and Leonard Episode 1
It should be no surprise that an award-winning writer as prolific and talented as Joe R. Lansdale would see some of his more popular characters brought to life in their own series. At nine books and three novellas, with a tenth novel on the way, Hap and Leonard is TV’s newest drama—or in this case, noir. (Swamp noir, if we’re splitting genre hairs.)
Lansdale is no stranger to television, having penned episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. He’s no stranger to adaptations, either—the cult hit Bubba Ho-Tep was based on his novella of the same name. Given his resumé, it wouldn’t be unrealistic to come into Hap and Leonard with big expectations. Throw in James Purefoy as Hap Collins, Michael Kenneth Williams as Leonard Pine, and Christina Hendricks as Hap’s ex, Trudy, it’s understandable that one’s expectations may exceed what this show might be able to deliver.
Happily, SundanceTV does not disappoint. Hap and Leonard is bold and brash, profane and profound, wild and weary. Set in the late ’80s in the fictional East Texas town of LaBorde, Hap and Leonard is a slow and measured character study masquerading as a heist movie. But this is a good thing.
Hap and Leonard are middle-aged, life-long friends who are growing older and poorer together. On paper, they are opposites. Hap is white, straight, and was a conscientious objector who chose jail time over fighting in Vietnam. Leonard is black, gay, and served his country in the steamy jungles of southeast Asia. But their friendship is not defined by their differences; they are in it together for the long haul, struggling to survive despite meager job prospects and dwindling funds.
Enter Hap’s ex-wife Trudy, who shows up on Hap’s doorstep with a get-rich-quick scheme that seems almost too good to be true—but more on that in a bit. That she still carries a torch for him after all these years also seems too good to be true, but Hap can’t resist her siren’s call. He is a man who never fell out of love with his ex—he simply moved on, swept downstream by the river of Life. Like Hap, Trudy is unrequited ambition personified, a person who has fallen far short in her plan to save the world. One could argue their failed marriage doomed them from finding true financial or romantic success in their adult lives. Hap never remarried. Trudy burned through several husbands. Her chemistry with Hap is obvious, though; the screen crackles with their longing.
This is the very stuff of good noir—characters that are damaged goods, their hearts bruised, their egos battered. Sure, Hap is good with his fists, but he’s bad with real emotion. Leonard is tragic in his own way, too. He was raised by his Uncle Chester, a man who condemns his nephew for being gay. No matter that Leonard is fiercely protective of his uncle—they are simply two men from very different eras. His bias aside, his uncle also understands something about Leonard that he himself is unwilling to admit. Namely, Leonard cares for Hap in a way that extends beyond friendship. Which would explain why he’s no fan of Trudy. She broke Hap’s heart once, and Leonard fears she’ll do it again. This is not a love triangle, per se, but the tension between Trudy and Leonard is palpable.
Again, damaged goods, these people. They are broke and broken, their misguided youths spent, their dreams unattainable. Enter the get-rich-quick scheme, or, in this case, sunken treasure. The episode opens with an in media res high-speed car chase twenty years earlier. A bank robbery has gone horribly wrong, and within minutes the getaway car has plunged into the Sabine River, taking the stolen cash along with it. And there the money has stayed, lo these twenty years. Enter Trudy, who thinks Hap is the right man to locate the getaway car. At this point a normal person might walk away from the whole thing, but Hap is a man without many options left. He’s been struggling to survive, and this is the sort of lifeline he desperately needs.
Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and in this case, Trudy’s most recent ex-husband, Howard (Bill Sage), is the mastermind behind the scheme to recover the loot. An aging hippie with big, altruistic plans for the money, Howard nonetheless fails to hit it off with either Hap or Leonard. One gets the sense that there’s a bit more than just peace and love on his agenda, especially the questionable company he keeps in Paco and Chub, two would-be revolutionaries with mysterious pasts.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t touch upon a pair of rampaging killers (a creepy Jimmi Simpson and an even creepier Pollyanna McIntosh), who randomly murder a small-town cop by way of introduction to the story. But there is a method to their madness as it’s revealed they’re looking for Howard’s associate, Paco. It will be interesting to see these two storylines draw together over the course of the season.
For now, Hap and Leonard are just making things up as they go, drawn to the possibility of wealth like moths to a flame. Find the money, keep the money. The stakes of this heist are low, for now, though Hap has more skin in this game, figuratively and literally. The million-dollar question is if a man with nothing to lose has a chance at winning it all.
Some closing thoughts:
I really love and appreciate that this show doesn’t spoon-feed viewers.
For example, the locale is revealed in an opening shot of the getaway car’s license plate (which also calls out the year as 1967). When jumping ahead twenty years, the decade is communicated via a Tears for Fears song and cars that were unmistakably of ’80s design. That past-due bills are stacked on Hap’s kitchen countertop is another bit of subtlety that rewards attentive viewers.
These are little details, but they add up quickly, giving the proceedings a veneer of verisimilitude that other shows struggle to attain even after several seasons on the air.