Sundance TV’s new crime story with a hangout vibe is an easy series-record. It stars James Purefoy (Rome’s Mark Antony) and Michael K. Williams (The Wire’s Omar) with Christina Hendricks (Mad Men’s Joan) in third, three enormous talents with three indelible TV characters under their belts. (Some might say there’s a fourth in Jimmi Simpson’s Liam McPoyle). It’s made by Jim Mickle and partner Nick Damici, who adapted novelist Joe R. Lansdale’s work into the thriller, Cold In July. It’s set in untrampled screen country, a little ways northwest of Rust and Marty territory in the first season of True Detective, a regional setting that comes with specific local flavor and a distinct natural geography. It doesn’t just simulate humor like so many crime dramas before it; it’s actually fun. And last but not least, it’s only six episodes of modest length, not just an oasis amid peak TV’s 40-minute Netflix rom-com eps but the perfectly sized package for this small-town heist gone awry.
After an opening sequence that quickly progresses through humor, drama, and a touch of pathos—a post-robbery car chase set to “Up Around The Bend” that ends with the robbers driving into a lake, one of them sinking with the car and the other, injured, crawling to land only to pass out as the wad of bills in his hand blows away—“Savage Season” eases us into the story of Hap and Leonard. Purefoy’s Hap and Williams’ Leonard are introduced clipping roses for a job, but they’re about to be fired thanks to cheaper labor, which Leonard takes somewhat violently. They retire to the grocery store to stock up on Dr. Pepper and Nilla Wafers. Later Leonard’s Uncle Chester will ask what the deal is with them. It’s a good question. What do they do? They practice shooting, even though Hap, an ex-hippie draft-dodger, abhors killing. They practice fighting, an opportunity for Leonard to spin kick Hap to the ground. They just hang out, two old friends with no significant others but each other. And despite the fact that Hap gets lucky—emphasis on “lucky”—and Leonard apparently “likes dick,” they don’t seem to do anything proactive to consummate their sexual desires. Hap and Leonard seem more than happy to spend their time together.
Hap And Leonard is such an easy-going buddy show you could miss the fact that Leonard is gay until his uncle ridicules him because of it. There’s not an ounce of gay panic when the two buy groceries together, when Leonard jokes about Hap’s perky ass (which you know is a joke because, even for a man who’s taken to middle age like James Purefoy, there’s nothing perky in those spectacularly drab ‘80s jeans), or even when Chester menacingly accuses them of being more than friends. Nevertheless, Leonard’s sexuality, or at least the acceptance of his family, appears to be a sore spot for him. Another is the fact that Leonard fought in Vietnam. He doesn’t take too kindly to many—Leonard at his nicest is still a stone-cold ball-buster—but he especially doesn’t cotton to pacifist talk from Hap or the people Hap gets him involved with. Judging from the premiere, that tension looks to be central to Hap And Leonard’s thematic concerns.
Early on, Leonard tells Hap, “A stiff dick ain’t got no conscience,” a moral Hap repeats when Leonard leaves him with Hendricks’ Trudy, who as it happens is Hap’s ex-wife. A few scenes later and Trudy leads him by the dick to his bedroom, a humorous, just off-screen interaction implied by the two performances and some delicate sound mixing. Afterward, once she’s softened him up, Trudy goes full femme fatale. “Hap, my love, how would you like to make $200,000?” Danger, danger.
Which brings us to the central plot of the season. That opening car chase left a million dollars at the bottom of the Sabine River on the border of Texas and Louisiana. Trudy’s latest ex-husband, Howard (Bill Sage), knows some details of the location from befriending the surviving robber in prison, a man who is since deceased. So why do they need Hap’s help? Trudy says it’s because Howard doesn’t know the area that well, but it sounds perfectly fishy. Hap refuses to go along without Leonard. Howard turns out to have two accomplices of his own, the awkward child abuse survivor, Chub (Jeff Pope), and the hostile-seeming crossbow wielder with heavy facial scarring, Paco (Neil Sandilands). Already there are tensions in the group just dying to express themselves more violently: Howard’s intentions to put the money to world-changing good use in some unspecified anti-capitalist project versus Hap and especially Leonard’s adamant refusal to give up his share; the hair-triggers on Paco and Leonard; the sexual tension between Trudy and her exes. And just how much are Trudy and Howard lying to Hap and Leonard?
“Savage Season” is an exciting hook with an expectedly dynamite central trio. I was in well before learning the details of the heist. Mickle keeps it visually controlled, too, so it never feels messy. He prefers a long take to flashy cutting, and his compositions are simple save for occasional emphatic flourishes, like a surprising push in on Trudy when she first spills the beans about the job. That said, there a few clunky elements that betray the sense that we’re in firm hands. Things like a tight focus on a drink as Leonard says he’s drinking or Trudy asking if Leonard thinks something’s funny after he has already laughed about it—there are a handful of such lapses into uncanny obviousness, wrinkles that should have been ironed out in the transition from script to screen in order to fit the worn-in vibe. Things start to feel a little too schematic around the time Leonard’s displaying his masculine prowess in defense of his homophobic uncle, but anything formulaic after that can be chalked up to genre. After all, this is just laying out the basic goals and obstacles for the season. Finally, there’s an awkward habit of characters summing people up, a sort of grand exposition that sometimes gets by on rhetorical panache. For instance, Leonard tells Hap, “You always overcommit, in love and war.” Every now and then it gets to be too much, but when it works, it’s charming. These people communicate in philosophical terms, whether flirtation, admonition, or plain statement of principles. How refreshing for a TV drama to have such a distinct way with words.
The first night the gang gets together, Hap takes off in his truck to get some peace and quiet. He sits on the side of the road and drinks and thinks about his past, as you do. But there’s another car at the gas station with a busted tail light. Hap avoids it altogether, but an unfortunate police officer has no choice but to investigate. It’s a tense encounter, because the driver, Jimmi Simpson’s Soldier, appears to be high or something. He’s not taking the situation seriously at all, even when the cop has his gun drawn. To make matters worse, only one of Soldier’s hands is completely visible. What’s the other up to? Finally something lurches in the trunk, and the cop demands Soldier open it. And Soldier holds out just long enough, playing with his disco ball key chain like the start to a magic trick, that his associate (Pollyanna McIntosh’s Angel) has the opportunity to sneak up behind the cop and stab him in the neck a whole bunch of times. As the cop lies there gurgling, Soldier leans down and tells him he’s looking for Paco. And that’s where we leave it. All of a sudden our gang has a pair of psychopathic killers on its tail, and I, for one, am hooked.
- Hap And Leonard is filmed in Baton Rouge, but it’s close enough in environment to pass for East Texas, and it bridges the gap with a healthy appreciation for Texas soft drink Dr. Pepper and decidedly Texanish (as opposed to Cajunish) accents.
- I mentioned Hap’s jeans, but all the costuming on Hap And Leonard deserves mention, most of it plain and somewhat unflattering, although they make it work. Leonard, particularly, looks at home in cowboy jeans, a camo jacket, and a straw cowboy hat. Then the bad guys come to town in these colorful, flashy numbers. I’m not even sure how to describe what Angel’s wearing, some kind of strappy pink leggings? The point is, this show knows its way around expressive costuming.
- Trudy and Leonard have never gotten along, which we’re led to believe has to do with his reaction to her strongly held beliefs about war and peace. Trudy tells Hap, “I still think he was wrong. If no one would fight, there’d be no wars.”
- If you’re not suspicious of Trudy yet, consider the dialogue from when she grabs hold of Hap’s dick, which is a body part we’ve already been warned about by Leonard. Hap tells her, “That’s not fair.” She replies, “Nothin’ is, Sugar.” So that doesn’t inspire a lot of faith. I can just see her trying to get one up on him at the very end of all this, and him saying it’s not fair.
- Trudy tells Hap and Leonard that Howard met the robber whose money is in the river at Leavenworth. “My alma mater,” says Hap. Leonard tells him, “All of her ex-husbands go there.”
- Uncle Chester tells Hap, “I don’t get it,” meaning Hap and Leonard’s relationship. Hap snaps back, “You don’t have to.”
- Chub, upon seeing Leonard. “I’m an admirer of Martin Luther King.”
- Howard sums up his worldview. Whether he’s being completely honest is another question. “We’ve become a nation that values nothing except greed, consumption, turning our backs on those that need us most, all the while lining the pockets of Wall Street, big business.” I’m very curious to know what his intentions for the money are, and I’m not sure if I buy that neither Hap nor Leonard asked him plainly.
- Trudy: “What happened to you?” Hap: “Life. And you. That didn’t help.”