Over time, plenty of famous anti-hero duos have become pop cultural phenomenons: Thelma and Louise, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bonnie and Clyde. Each of these pairings share morally ambiguous traits and a strong motive of escaping from the hellish society in which they live. Sundance’s newest six-episode TV show, “Hap and Leonard,” is the latest story to showcase these types of characters. Though it lacks a certain “wow” factor, “Hap and Leonard” effectively uses its Joe R. Lansdale source material, dry humor and atmospheric tone to build a witty, slow-burning drama.
Set deep within the American South, specifically 1988 in a sultry eastern part of Texas, “Hap and Leonard” unfolds gradually, like a blossoming flower. James Purefoy (“The Following”) and Michael Kenneth Williams (“The Wire”) respectively play Hap and Leonard, two men who seem like total opposites, yet maintain a believable friendship through their wisecracking quips and solid chemistry. “Savage Season,” the series’ pilot episode, gives a decent, if placidly paced, introduction to the characters and the plot. After getting fired from their jobs as rose field workers, Hap and Leonard receive an offer from Hap’s old flame Trudy (Christina Hendricks, “Mad Men”) that they can’t refuse — a hunt to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars stolen from a bank in the ’60s that’s scattered in an area Hap knows well. It seems like a simple task, but along the way, Hap and Leonard learn that there’s more to the case than meets the eye.
Throughout the first episode, “Hap and Leonard” retains a keen sense of time and place. The setting of the late ’80s is evident, from the fashion to the politics to the show’s references to disco and New Wave — Tears for Fears’s classic “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” makes a brief appearance in the beginning. Yet the 1960s seems to plague Hap and Leonard the most. The brutal aftermath of the Vietnam War resonates harshly with the two, Hap having faced imprisonment for refusing to serve in the army during the war and Leonard having experienced the war firsthand as a soldier. Hap remains nonviolent yet disdainful of ’60s counterculture, while Leonard is visibly short-tempered and resentful of his past, especially with how his Uncle Chester (Henry G. Sanders, “Whiplash”) dismisses his homosexuality. From these small but powerful details, we start to see why Hap and Leonard, and characters similar to them, think cynically about the world.
Towards the end of “Savage Season,” the story begins to meander a bit, with the initial subplot of finding the money dwindling to a mere plot device. More eccentric characters are introduced, including Trudy’s current hippie husband Howard (Bill Sage, “American Psycho”), the socially inept Chub (Jeff Pope, “Prisoners”) and the facially deformed Paco (Neil Sandilands, “The 100”). But the real kicker comes in the last sequence. Without spoiling it too much, it involves a malicious psychopath played by character actor Jimmi Simpson (“House of Cards”), his female bodybuilder associate (Pollyanna McIntosh, “Filth”) and an unfortunate cop who encounters the two.
“Hap and Leonard” is a promising piece of work and will leave you hooked. By slowly pulling you into its strange, fictionalized world, “Hap and Leonard” is guaranteed to make you laugh, tense up and wonder about how the story of the show’s eponymous duo will end up.