Amazon's 'Hand of God' and 'Hysteria': TV Reviews
Amazon Studios whiffs with two less-than-compelling dramas
After posting three good comedies with varying degrees of potential, Amazon Studios has released two dramas that only reinforce the notion that making television is hard, no matter where you make it or how you present it.
Coming out just weeks before the onslaught of network programming and continued cable offerings, the two Amazon Studios efforts do little to create buzz or motivate one to clear space on the DVR. That’s problematic but not unpredictable — most TV fails. (And posting three interesting comedies was no easy feat, so Amazon Studios has that going for it.)
A reminder: It's impossible to review just one episode of a television series with any real accuracy about its future or even the tone of what you'll see in the next episode, so caveats all around.
Hand of God
This is the stronger of the two Amazon offerings, yet both suffer from having big ideas that take too long to come to fruition in each pilot, and really neither concludes with enough evidence to convince me that the creators have a concrete idea of where they’re going.
Hand of God has a strong cast and an idea that’s intriguing until the credits roll, and there’s no clear notion of where it will head in the second episode (in some instances that’s a great hook; this is not one of those instances). Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy) stars as Judge Pernell Harris, who is in the throes of a mental breakdown (at least that’s one theory about what’s happening to him). The series opens with him naked in a public fountain speaking in tongues, and we soon find out that he’s been dubiously “born again” while having this mental breakdown and the fly-by-night preacher that “baptized” him is a con man.
Despite all of that, Harris soldiers on with this notion even when he’s clear-headed about what’s happening to him. He then recruits a “born-again sociopath" named KD (the wonderful Garret Dillahunt) to mete out his vengeance.
See, what started all of this is that some crazed criminal raped Harris' daughter-in-law while making his son watch. His son later shot himself in the head and is in a coma, clinically dead. And yet, Harris can hear his son speak to him and so keeps him alive.
All of this worries Harris’ wife, Crystal (Dana Delany), and Harris’ close friend Robert Boston (Andre Royo), as well it should (it should also worry you, as the viewer). Disassociated voices driving dramas is never a good thing.
Written by Ben Watkins (Burn Notice) and directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, World War Z), Hand of God struggles to make sense in the pilot. Is Harris just crazy? Is he really somehow getting messages from God and acting on them? What kind of God is that? If Harris is just insane and vindictive, then Hand of God has little going for it other than being a TV version of, say, a Charles Bronson film. If Harris is acting as God’s messenger, then that's also problematic since nobody in this drama is particularly likable, not even God. Could be an issue.
Executive produced and written by Shaun Cassidy (Invasion, American Gothic) and directed by Otto Bathurst (Peaky Blinders), Hysteria struggles both for lift-off in the pilot and for a hook that will sink itself into you. The premise of this psychological thriller is that we are all susceptible to social media contagions — meaning we could all go crazy, say, from watching something too many times. (It would really be too easy to add jokes here.)
Set in Austin, Texas, the pilot stars Mena Suvari (American Beauty, Chicago Fire) as a neurologist who may have some past history with this kind of thing. James McDaniel (NYPD Blue) plays the doctor who brings her on to the case of a bunch of teen dancers having seizures and fits when watching a video. And it spreads. It’s contagious. Laura San Giacomo is here as well, as the chief of police. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine that this series will take off unless Amazon voters of a certain age totally believe in social contagions and, expressly, social media contagions. Viral videos being a kind of virus? Physiological reactions through visual overload? It’s a bit of a stretch. OK, a huge stretch. Sure, you can get on board with some of this, but the way it's packaged in Hysteria — an hour that sits there, mostly flat — hardly makes you hysterical for another episode.