Hap and Leonard: Truly Unique, Destined for Obscurity

Kevin Koeser
TV Columnist

Sundance’s recently concluded Hap and Leonard seems destined to be forgotten, which will be a shame, but also very fitting for the unassuming show. The first season offered something truly unique, and even though it was uneven it’s worth checking out if you have a few hours to spare.

The six episode season goes down easy, with each episode flowing into the next in a format ideal for binging. Which makes sense, the season adapts the novel Savage Season, the first of Joe R. Lansdale’s books to feature the titular characters. Mix that with Jim Mickle (who recently adapted Lansdale’s Cold in July for film) directing every episode and the series blurs the line between television and movie. This creates a very consistent tone and style that’s sets the series apart. Mickle dabbles in long takes, muted colors, and alternating quiet meditations with frantic, pulpy action. It’s a very distinctive style that sets it apart from the rest of the TV landscape.

The show’s blue collar setting is also a rarity on TV these days, and allows for some interesting exploration of its themes of struggle and loss. At the center are the titular heroes, Hap (an inconsistent James Purefoy) an ex-hippie just trying to lay low now and Leonard (a brilliant Michael K. Williams), a gay and black Vietnam vet angry at a system doubly set against him. The two struggle to make ends meet, making them easy marks to get roped into a scheme by a group of radical activists looking to dredge up hundreds of thousands in stolen money currently sitting at the bottom of a lake. Complicating matters is Trudy (Christina Hendricks, also excellent), Hap’s ex-wife who is torn between following the activists and protecting her former husband.

The series is suffused with melancholy. Without getting into spoilers, the series grapples with themes about idealism vs. cynicism, the corrupting power of greed, and how the people in the present can both fall into but also break the cycles of the past. It does this while still maintaining a fun, dry wit about itself and delivering pulpy, breathtaking action. These shifts aren’t jarring, it’s a testament to Mickle and his team that a wacky scene where Hap fends off a crocodile can be easily followed by a tender reconnection between him and Trudy without missing a beat. Also great is a running gag of Hap and Leonard finding themselves bound together, in escalating bits of physical comedy.

 

It’s an image that’s funny, and also serves as subtle reinforcement of the bond the two share, one that keeps pulling them into each next scrap together even when they disagree. The motif reaches its peak in the climatic fifth episode where, handcuffed together and escaping a dangerous situation, Hap and Leonard find themselves literally pulling each other in opposite directions. No matter where one goes, the other is obligated to follow.

Their beautiful friendship is the emotional rock the series is built on, and papers over the frustrating thinness to the other characters. While the short episode count means the side characters Hap, Leonard, and Trudy meet are only thin sketches, mostly defined by one overriding quirk, the three leads are each richly drawn. Fingers crossed we see get another season with these characters, this world created by Lansdale and Mickle is one I want to spend more time in.

Hap and Leonard can be viewed in its entirety on the Sundance TV website if you have a cable subscription, or digitally purchased from various sources.