Sundance TV’s ‘Hap and Leonard’

Politics and the buddy film

Sundance TV’s new buddy series, Hap and Leonard, begins with a rousing car chase in Marvel Creek, Texas in 1968. The result is a drowned Cadillac, a wounded thief on a riverbank, another thief probably dead, and loose cash about to scatter to the winds and sink into the river.

Life is not a field of roses for Hap and Leonard.

Fast forward to 1988 and another Nowhere, Texas locale. Two farm workers, Hap and Leonard (white and black, respectively), abruptly lose their jobs to Mexicans who will be even more poorly paid than they are. This news, exactly as such, is delivered to them in the field of roses where they’re working, by a fat man in a golf cart who apparently finds layoffs amusing.

The connection between the scenes is initially unclear since Hap doesn’t look like an older version of the white man on the riverbank. Gradually, though, we start to find out more about him. Of economic necessity, apparently, he shares a home with Leonard. Theirs is a sniping but friendly relationship, played naturally and effectively by James Purefoy and Michael Kenneth Williams.

Hap’s old girlfriend, Trudy (Kari Shemwell), who has been bouncing around from man to man for 20 years, has a proposition that could mean as much as $200,000 for Hap, which quickly becomes $100,000 each for him and Leonard. The cash is related to the first scene of the series — the wounded man survived, later to be stabbed to death with a temple broken from his own glasses in prison.  Before his death, though, he met Trudy’s ex-husband. . . .  

You get the general idea.

The first dramedy of the Trump-Sanders era?

At first glance, the show comes off as something that would have fascinated the late leftist historian Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States), Bernie Sanders, and possibly Donald Trump. It involves the struggles of those miles down the income scale from “the top one percent,” including a doubly oppressed minority individual: Leonard is not only an African American in Texas, but also gay. (Hap falls into neither of those categories, but he sticks up for Leonard’s preference in the latter.)

The story, however, depends on the clichéd Hollywood notion (which Zinn would say buttresses unfettered capitalism) that folks at the bottom of the economic ladder are all actually remarkably intelligent, witty, and, under the skin, brothers in capitalistic striving. This, of course, raises the question: if Hap and his pal are so damned sharp, understanding, and forged by competitive fires, why were they still cutting roses in their 40s?

In fact, the word “capitalist” briefly floats to the dialogue surface just past the half-way point of the first episode. Hap clearly finds it a superior notion to those held by “hippie idealists.” Leonard concurs. If they find any money, he always has bills to pay.

Later, the episode threatens to chug to a deadly stop in a literal debate between treasure-hunting idealists and realists; then the teleplay suddenly veers into murderous territory with the introduction of new — and very unusual — characters.

Blather or intelligent action coming?

This series at has only begun, so it’s difficult to tell yet where it’s headed — possibly into the same deadly blather about the “issues” that has crystalized into the Trump and Sanders presidential candidacies. That would be a shame and a waste of Purefoy and Williams, who work well together. I’m hoping, though, that the vehicle’s directors, Jim Mickle and Nick Gomez, and their team of writers will have the good sense to allow their principal characters to show rather than tell, even if they stick with the issues trotted out somewhat woodenly in the first hour.

In a happy development, the initial talkiness of Episode Two is quickly halted when a modest quicksand pit sucks off one character’s pants.

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