'Hap and Leonard': TV Review

Hap and Leonard S01 Still - H 2016
Hilary Gayle/SundanceTV

Hap and Leonard S01 Still - H 2016

Sweaty, hard-boiled Texas thrills.

Michael K. Williams and James Purefoy bicker charmingly in SundanceTV's Texas noir, which co-stars Christina Hendricks.

The challenge of adapting Joe R. Lansdale's Hap and Leonard series is that of adapting many of the prolific Texas scribe's books: Character, setting and atmospherics are front and center, but the stories don't quite fit into any easily embraceable commercial genre.

In 1988 in a fictional Texas town, Hap Collins (James Purefoy) and Leonard Pine (Michael K. Williams) are at the bottom of the economic ladder. They work the rose fields and money is so scarce that Nilla wafers are Leonard's idea of a treat. Hap is a former '60s idealist and an ex-con, while Leonard is a gay Vietnam vet. They don't "do" things, exactly, so much as they chew the fat and kick-box and they keep their life aspirations low. Sometimes in Lansdale's nine-book series they solve crimes, but they're not detectives, even if you know the CBS version of Hap and Leonard would start with them getting their PI license, while the Fox version would begin with the police department hiring them to work with a strong female detective. Hap and Leonard are just buddies whose lives are constantly tangential to various crimes.

Directed in its early installments by Jim Mickle and written by Mickle and Nick Damici, the six-episode first season of SundanceTV's Hap and Leonard is taken from Lansdale's Savage Season, in which our main characters are pulled into a recovery mission for a stolen fortune. Hap is lured by his enticing ex-wife Trudy (Christina Hendricks), Leonard is lured by Hap and a heist of sorts brings them into contact with an eccentric group of counterculture revolutionaries and a pair of relentless psychopaths.

Unlike a slash-and-burn adaptation job like Hulu's 11.22.63, which forced the writers to trim a 1,000-page book into eight hours, Mickle and Damici's paring is minimal. The book has a crazy, violent conclusion and some suspenseful set-pieces, but the bulk of the pages are characters cracking wise, lamenting the dreams they let slip away and fantasizing uses for cash they may never find. The result is that Hap and Leonard gets to be very true to the plot of Savage Season, with extra time to plant early seeds for a second season based on Lansdale's Mucho Mojo.

Mickle and Damici worked in the same capacity on 2014's very fine Cold in July (Don Johnson's character from that film is a part of the Hap and Leonard literary universe and could theoretically appear in later seasons), and they have a strong sense of how to capture Lansdale's pulpy, sweat-drenched world, with its slightly large-than-life explorations of masculinity in a unique Texas landscape where attitudes toward race and sexuality are slow to change with the times. Filmed in Baton Rouge, Hap and Leonard has ample atmosphere, even if East Texans will probably bristle at the idea that Louisiana is interchangeable. The Hap and Leonard friendship is a fantastic mixture of politically incorrect, boundary-free banter, loving antagonism and do-anything-for-each-other dedication, and the writers push hard to convey the friendship, even if some of the back-and-forths feel more natural on the page.

Casting is everything with a buddy show this pure and Hap and Leonard made one spectacular and obvious choice and one against-the-grain choice with potential. This may be as close as Williams ever comes to a conventional lead, but Leonard is a part so full of wit, warmth and looming menace that none of the Wire and Boardwalk Empire veteran's considerable jagged charisma is wasted. The casting was uncanny when it was announced and he's close to perfect onscreen as well. Purefoy, though, would be nobody's intuitive choice as a working-class Texan and his accent is all over the map and periodically across the pond. What Purefoy delivers, though, is the studied ease of a man who once cared about things, stopped caring and now just coasts on charm. Purefoy and Williams sell the rapport between their characters, and Purefoy also crackles with Hendricks, who brings the perfect '50s femme fatale vibe to a story that had to tame some of its sexuality for basic cable.

SundanceTV appears to have mostly let the rest of the adult content in Hap and Leonard slide, maintaining Lansdale's Texploitation largesse and delivering a product that's likely more accessible than the network's remarkable, but underwatched, Rectify. In our age of boundless Netflix or premium cable (or even FX) running times, the 45-minute episodes and the sometimes light narrative leave the initial three episodes feeling somewhat thin, but that feeling could abate in the presumably intense closing three episodes, or maybe the first season will be best binged as prelude to a second season. With Mickle and Damici in their comfort zone and Williams and Purefoy as key anchors, Hap and Leonard should be a winner for SundanceTV.

Cast: Michael K. Williams, James Purefoy, Christina Hendricks
Creators: Jim Mickle and Nick Damici from the books by Joe R. Lansdale
Airdate: Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET/PT, beginning March 2 (SundanceTV)