It’s no secret that pilot episodes are notoriously difficult to execute, but Hand Of God has the added challenge of being part of Amazon’s—let’s call it “unique”—original programming model. Made last year, the pilot—about Ron Perlman’s corrupt judge Pernell Harris imagining (or is he?) that he’s being directed on a quest for justice by the voice of God— had to not only introduce the central premise and set up the interrelationships among the series’ expansive cast, but also potentially stand alone, since Amazon users’ feedback would at least party decide its eventual fate going forward. Series creator Ben Watkins assembled a promising cast, certainly—apart from the ever-imposing Perlman, Hand Of God boasts The Wire’s Andre Royo as ingratiatingly bent Mayor “Bobo” (not “Bubbles”) Boston, Dana Delany as Harris’ knowing, steely wife Crystal, and Garrett Dillahunt plying his glowering menace as K.D., a born-again ex-con who becomes Harris’ violent right hand. Film director Marc Forster handles directing duties, lending the pilot his Oscar-nominated cred—with the formidable Perlman as subject, Forster is especially adept at using the hulking Harris to dominate the frame.
In trying to lay an enticing groundwork for his potential series, however, Watkins ends up with a jumbled surplus of plot. Harris, apart from being a conservative hardass on the bench (“He’s called Judge Maximum—as in maximum sentence,” a defense attorney helpfully explains at one point), is also the real power in his city, implied to be behind all manner of corruption, most recently a shady land-grab that his recent erratic behavior threatens to derail. The judge’s breakdown—we first meet him naked and jibbering in tongues in a city fountain—is written off by his concerned wife and colleagues as being a result of trauma. His son P.J. lies in a coma, having recently shot himself in the head, some seven months after he was forced to watch his wife Jocelyn (Alona Tal) raped by a still-unknown assailant, and Jocelyn is contemplating disconnecting her husband’s life support. Meanwhile, we meet a shady young preacher (New Girl’s Julian Morris) who, with the help of his suspiciously seductive sidekick (Elizabeth McLaughlin) manages to get a wary yet susceptible bank manager to cash the $50,000 check Harris wrote to them during the three-day period leading up to his reappearance in the fountain. This causes Delany to warn the preacher away—a defensive function she’s clearly no stranger to, as she also conspires with the mayor to keep the big land deal on track. Oh, and Harris has one last judge’s chamber tryst with his expensive prostitute mistress Tessie (Emayatzy Corinealdi) before telling her that his recent religious conversion means they’ll have to end their sexual relationship, although he’ll still pay her their customary $1,500 an hour just to talk.
It’s a lot, and the challenges posed by Hand Of God’s unique birth can explain much of why it feels overstuffed. (Dillahunt’s introduction, losing control and winding up back in front of the judge after a fellow ex-con interrupts K.D.’s ill-attended Bible study is in there as well.) Which would be far less of an issue if Hand Of God weren’t so ploddingly grim in laying out a number of unnecessarily sordid elements—and if the show’s conception of Pernell Harris were more interesting.
Ron Perlman is a uniquely vivid actor, capable of much more than the growling, barreling, dour agent of plot he’s given to play here, especially since Harris’ recent conversion proceeds in vague fits and starts. The idea of a deeply compromised man (who yet has a very black-and-white sense of morality) forced to reevaluate his ways via moral awakening might give Perlman something to sink those impressive jaws into. But the judge’s moral conversion comes off as too muddy, leaving Perlman to grumble about the bad things he’s always done before shrugging and doing them anyway (here in the pilot, at least). Instead, Pernell Harris—and, by extension, Perlman—is more often a puppet of the plot, in the form of the commanding voice of his comatose son, which jerks him from one awkward encounter to another. In his son’s hospital room, then at a law enforcement dinner in his honor, the judge is instructed by the voice, “The stream of justice is winding but true. Follow the stream,” leaving him frantically following every river of liquid in sight (imaginary blood, spilled coffee) while everyone in the vicinity looks on in stunned embarrassment.
Perlman does what he can here, seizing the opportunities to stretch from booming rage to murmured threats to strangled tears at his son’s bedside, but, without a clearer conception of Pernell’s role (on the show and in the plot), his efforts exist in sometimes-strained isolation. At his best when playing the judge’s innate authority, Perlman makes Pernell’s many confrontation scenes (with the mayor, the preacher, the police chief, doctors, lawyers, his daughter-in-law) stand out, mainly because they appear to be coming from the character he was before the plot kicked in. Demanding the chief hand over the files from the stalled investigation into the rape, Perlman’s contemptuous, “Seven months? You can have a baby in seven months if you’re pressed.” lands with a satisfyingly contemptuous snap. Similarly, forcing Harris’ Reverend Paul to accompany him to his son’s bedside, Pernell brushes off the preacher’s concerns about Crystal’s warning with a matter-of-fact “My wife is a powerhouse, no doubt about that. But she married up. If there’s anyone in this town that can hurt you, it’s Pernell fucking Harris,” that shows Perlman’s strengths especially well. It’s just that, like the too-busy plot, Pernell’s journey here lurches according to a narrative logic that robs him of his agency—and our interest.
Apart from how this construction leaves us distant from Pernell, it also creates a problematic relationship with Jocelyn. Sure, it’s a particularly exhausted cliché for the rape of a female relative to be the catalyst for the main (male) character’s story, but anything can be done well if it’s done well. This isn’t done well. Apart from how elaborately squalid Jocelyn’s violation is, Hand Of God places her in the position to be narratively villainous. Alona Tal dutifully expresses Jocelyn’s utter exhaustion with her awful circumstances, but, since Pernell’s visions are all dependent on his son staying on life support, her function in the plot is always at odds with what’s right for the story to progress. It’s an untenable position—even as Pernell’s actions become more unsympathetic, the show still needs him to prevail, as he does throughout, even in one of the most offensively ill-conceived scenes I’ve seen all year.
When his spilled coffee vision leads Pernell literally to the feet of seemingly innocent cop Shane Caldwell (a tellingly untrustworthy-looking Wes Chatham), the judge bullies the police chief into interrogating the young man, while he also forces Jocelyn to observe through the two-way glass. As the investigation escalates, Pernell forces the cop to strip to the waist (he complies in fear of lost advancement) and makes his daughter-in-law to stare at the man’s penis, literally wrenching her face toward the man’s crotch and screaming unnecessary exposition at her to validate his suspicions. (“That man raped you! He raped you and he made P.J. watch!”) Meant, I’m presuming, to be intense and riveting, the whole spectacle is, instead, thoroughly and unnecessarily unpleasant. Tal gives it her all (and when she finally spits in Pernell’s face, it’s cathartic for the viewer as well as her), but it’s of a piece with Hand Of God’s shallow and exploitative use of rape as drama. Stacking the deck against Jocelyn further, the show sees her reveal to her therapist that her husband’s secret suicide note blamed her for what happened, and her deathbed speech to her husband just before she prepares to pull the plug concludes with her saying “I hate you.” Both in conception and execution, the rape subplot is as clumsy as it is offensive.
In the end, Hand Of God’s supernatural elements (they’re not developed enough to be called “religious elements” at this point) serve no deeper purpose than to guide Pernell Harris through the beginnings of a very True Detective-sounding crime plot. (Explaining how things work in town, Harris reveals that his family has ruled it since it was founded by his great-grandfather, echoing the incestuous fiefdom at the heart of T.D.’s Vinci.) Whether Pernell’s visions and conversion are revealed to be genuine or not at this point are irrelevant. They still lead Pernell to Caldwell, who—kidnapped and stabbed in the groin repeatedly by K.D. at Pernell’s instruction—confesses both his culpability in the rape, and that the act itself was merely a cover for some deeper conspiracy. (He conveniently dies before spilling the beans any further.)
Going forward, Hand Of God will have the luxury of expanding on these elements over nine more episodes, which should allow the plot and performances some time to breathe. And that’s a good thing. Pilots are hard, but they also are representative of the show’s intentions—on the basis of its first installment, Hand Of God has a lot of flaws to address.
- In an episode almost completely devoid of humor, Andre Royo’s slippery energy as Bobo manages a few snatches of energy. When Crystal apologizes for missing his daughter’s wedding, Bobo’s response—“I’m pretty sure you’ll get another shot. That girl’s mighty fickle”—is the one laugh in the entire pilot.
- Royo’s innate charisma aside, saddling him with intestinal distress and having him play a scene with Delany while shitting himself on the can isn’t especially promising for the character’s dignity.
- As ever, Dillahunt’s ability to channel slack-jawed, murder-eyed mania is quite effective, especially when coupled with K.D.’s fundamentalist certitude.
- I’m rooting for Perlman—the man deserves a star vehicle (apart from the one with the horns, of course). And the more he can growl lines like this, the better: “You’re talking in a tone that implies an authority I don’t think you possess, Dr. Williams. Now get the fuck out of my way.”
- Speaking of True Detective, Pernell’s line “It’s like my dick just stays hard but I don’t need pussy. I need justice for P.J.” brought back unwelcome echoes of Vince Vaughn’s “It’s like blueballs—in your heart.” Good actor versus failed hard-boiled dialogue is always a mismatch.
- That being said, I call a draw between Royo and “He is a microscopic speck of paint in the big picture I’m painting.”
- Tal really does as much as she can here. Her speech before disconnecting P.J. (halted by Pernell’s court order at the last minute) is especially fine: “Everything is not going to be okay. And I am not going to get over this someday. I don’t even know who I am without you.”
- Hi, gang. I’m Dennis, and I’ll be your reviewer for the entire season of Hand Of God. I’m going to be watching and reviewing these episodes one at a time. I know that online series are ripe for binge-watching—and go for it, if that’s your bag—but we’re observing a strict “no spoilers” rule in the comments. Seriously, no one benefits from someone revealing what’s coming up, and anyone who does that is going to be flagged and deleted to smithereens. Don’t be that person. Nobody likes that person.