‘Hap and Leonard’ Unites Christina Hendricks and Michael K. Williams in a Noir-Tinged ’80s Adventure

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The specter of the past haunts Hap and Leonard.

This is true of both the show itself, which transplants various noir conventions into the rather un-noirish time of summer 1988, and its namesake characters, a seemingly mismatched pair of lifelong best friends played by James Purefoy and Michael K. Williams. Hap, Leonard, and the makeshift crew they acquire are all obsessed with what could have been and when things went wrong in their lives. The answer, most of them have concluded, is at the end of the ’60s. Except now it’s the end of the ’80s, making their spiritual condition less of a hangover than a chronic disease.

As written by novelist Joe R. Lansdale, on whose Savage Season the six-episode series is based, and adapted by Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, Hap and Leonard currently spend their days doing backbreaking labor in the rose fields of East Texas. It didn’t always used to be this way. Once upon a time, Hap had a gorgeous wife, Trudy (Christina Hendricks), a desperate need for a haircut, and a diehard sense of idealism — until he decided to take a stand against Vietnam and spent two years in federal prison to send a message no one got. As for Leonard, life as an orphaned, gay black man was never quite easy enough to romanticize, but it was certainly easier than being an orphaned, gay black man who’s also a disillusioned war veteran.

Hap and Leonard kicks off when Trudy, playing the femme fatale nicely, shows up with a scheme that sounds — and is — too good to be true. Her most recent ex-husband’s prison buddy left $1 million sitting in the back of the getaway car he drove into a river; for reasons that are never quite explained, a full half-dozen people are required to find the money and retrieve it.

But it’s not the how that matters in Hap and Leonard. It’s the why. Trudy doesn’t just serve as the Venus flytrap that gets Hap, and then Leonard, stuck in what inevitably turns into a mess. She’s been burned by time even more than her ex: what was once free love has soured into a string of broken marriages; what was once a wide-open future has settled into a waitressing job at a hokey burger chain. No wonder the most recent of those failed relationships was with Howard (Bill Sage), a Doc Sportello type who insists his share of the money is all he needs to kickstart the revolution again — even as George H.W. Bush inches his way to the White House by promising no new taxes in the background. Howard thinks money leads to power. Bush knows the easiest way to power is through the promise of money.

The presence of a disfigured former Weatherman known as Paco (Neil Sandilands) takes the already-clear message and puts it in bold and italics: this is a group whose best years are long behind them, and who’ve latched on to literal buried treasure as their last chance to get it all back. Paco is also the lightning rod who’s attracted the series’ two villains, who seem teleported from another, much pulpier story. House of Cards’ Jimmi Simpson plays motormouthed psychopath Soldier, Pollyanna McIntosh his mute, mohawked companion Angel. They’re bound to collide with Hap, Leonard, and their reluctant allies at some point, keeping the stakes nice and high once the frankly not-all-that-difficult task of finding an unguarded cache no one else knows about is completed. But in the full half season provided to critics, it’s never made clear when or why.

Exposition clearly isn’t Hap and Leonard’s strong suit. Neither is the character of Leonard, a relative cipher whose equal billing belies the show’s much stronger emphasis on Hap and his irrepressible nostalgia. Like Trudy’s nonexistent reason why Hap and only Hap can help them find the money — he knows where to find the bridge that marks the car-wreck site, because maps and locals with directions were evidently hard to come by in the late Reagan era — this is largely in service to the series’ theme of a lost Eden, to which Leonard can only serve as a foil rather than a participant. (Coincidentally, this was also the main concern of Inherent Vice, another unconventional noir in which Williams makes an appearance.) But it’s also a waste of Williams, who’s overdue for a star turn after hijacking the spotlight of not one, but two separate HBO series.

Hap and Leonard is ultimately a genre series for genre fans, sprucing up the story beats viewers know and love just enough to keep the double-crossing and dry banter and sexual tension from backsliding into paint-by-numbers crime thriller. Still, I can’t honestly recommend it for those who aren’t already fans of Lansdale or mystery series. This isn’t the post-Mad Men or –Boardwalk coup Hendricks and Williams still deserve, but it is an entertaining dive into the Southern swamp.

Hap and Leonard premieres tonight at 10pm on SundanceTV.

Update: A previous version of this review stated that Hap and Leonard was based on Cold in July, not Savage Season.