Since FX president John Landgraf introduced the concept of “peak TV”—the idea that original scripted television is a bubble poised to burst—it has dominated the conversation around television, and for good reason. Due to the glut of excellent content being frantically churned out by broadcasters large and small, television has gone from being a flurry of riveting storytelling to an avalanche that only serves to trigger a fear of missing out. Landgraf’s sentiments are accurate, but only when narrowly applied to the type of shows favored by FX and so many other outlets. There’s not too much original television, but there are too many “dark and gritty” dramas, a crisis to which Amazon has just contributed with its latest series, Hand Of God.
Hand Of God is exactly the kind of show that, through its sheer redundancy, fuels peak TV anxiety. As a peculiar take on religion and faith, Hand Of God’s subject matter is barely singular enough to warrant its existence. But the same cannot be said for its relentlessly bleak tone, which puts it in the dubious company of so many purportedly boundary-pushing dramas that quickly went on to fertilize the television graveyard. Much like yesterday’s forgotten prestige dramas, Hand Of God looks terrific and features a cast too excellent to ignore, but its strengths don’t compensate for the effortfully “edgy,” heavy-handed writing.
Ron Perlman stars as Pernell Harris, who serves as a California municipal judge, though it’s hard to tell as much when the pilot opens with him stark naked in a decorative public fountain shouting to the heavens. Pernell’s meltdown is met with frustrated concern by his devoted wife Crystal (Dana Delany) as well as his best friend Robert (Andre Royo), who serves as the mayor of the fictional San Vicente. While it’s not ideal for Pernell to inhabit such an unbecoming headline, especially as he’s the linchpin of a major development deal that could boost the city, it’s understandable given the circumstances. His son P.J. is lying in a coma after shooting himself in the head, a suicide attempt triggered by a horrific home invasion in which P.J.’s wife, Jocelyn (Alona Tal), was raped as P.J. was forced to watch.
Jocelyn is ready to end her husband’s life based on the doctor’s grim prognosis. But Pernell thwarts her after receiving an unexpected sign from God—the voice of P.J. calls out to him from his sick bed, asking his father to promise he’ll find and punish the men responsible for victimizing P.J.’s family. Pernell sets off on a righteous journey of vengeance, assisted by God himself—who provides helpful, often gruesome visions to guide Pernell—and K.D. (Garret Dillahunt), a violent ne’er-do-well whose intense Christian faith belies his criminal recidivism. Pernell’s life begins to buckle under the weight of his double life, and as he gets closer to discovering the truth behind the attack, the faith he never knew he had is tested.
Created by former Burn Notice writer Ben Watkins, Hand Of God couldn’t have more going for it on paper: a crackerjack cast plus excellent direction from Marc Forster, who chose the project as his series television debut. But Hand Of God is a wobbly parable, and like many of those featured in the sacred texts that lent Watkins his inspiration, it has little practical value. There’s a mustard seed of a good idea at the heart of the show, given how infrequently faith is explored in television even as it continues to factor so heavily in the national conversation. But the show is hamstrung by its lurid, pay-cable excess and its pitch-black tone.
God is a suitcase overpacked with clichés, from Perlman’s lead character, an esteemed member of society living a gothic double life, to Pernell’s side dish Tessie (the woefully underrated Emayatzy Corinealdi), who is such a literal take on the “hooker with a heart of gold” archetype that it’s difficult to describe the character using more enlightened terms. Even more troublesome is the show’s treatment of rape, which is used here as it so often is on television these days, as shorthand for any emotionally devastating event. And the emotional devastation is explored not through the victim, Jocelyn, whose revictimization at the hands of Pernell in the pilot leaves an early, rancid aftertaste that never goes away. Pernell is the one devastated because his son attempted suicide as a result of the rape, a choice that makes Hand Of God yet another show that circumvents a victimized woman and turns rape into a rhetorical flourish in an unpleasant conversation between men.
With such a talented cast, that Hand Of God is marvelously acted almost goes without saying. Dillahunt is particularly excellent as K.D., a tragic, intriguing character played so well by Dillahunt as to make the audience wish he could be spirited into another television show. But Dillahunt and Corinealdi are the only members of the cast who manage to shine through the deeply flawed writing. It’s not even so much the writing, which isn’t bad on its face, but the ideas behind it. There are some premises too leaden to fly, and a cross-pollination of Eli Stone and Sons Of Anarchy happens to be one of them.
The show is a disheartening misstep from Amazon Studios, who with Transparent pushed back against the notion that original television production is a market too overcrowded to wade into. Hand Of God, which feels derivative even when it’s not being derivative, reinforces that notion. The television medium is still bursting with exciting ideas, and God knows it’ll be nice to see more of them once the dark drama is finally forced to take a sabbatical.