I‘ve been a fan of Joe Lansdale’s writing for a long time now, and the Hap and Leonard books almost as long. For those of you unlucky enough to never have read Lansdale, suffice to say, you’re missing out; his books are almost entirely unclassifiable and unpredictable, running the gamut from all out horror to low-key dramas, from neo-noir to supernatural thrillers, and all done with a wicked sense of humor that’s hard to ignore. Lansdale writes what he wants, but the closest thing to consistency he’s ever done is the Hap and Leonard series of books, which follow around the titular characters as they get involved in all kinds of complicated situations. It’s pure Texas noir, done without any flinching but a beautiful sense of humor, and reading them is an absolute joy.
So when it was announced that the books were being made into a television series, I was equal parts excited and worried. I love these books quite a bit, and they’re low-key enough that you could easily do them on a TV budget. More than that, the choice to make them into a TV series instead of a movie seemed right; it would allow the stories to be told, while also allowing for the derails and character work that makes the books so good. And yet, I also worried that it wouldn’t hit the tone right. The Hap and Leonard books are pure noir, yes, and they’re unflinchingly so…but they’re also really, really funny, an element that’s inextricably linked to their appeal. And more than that, there’s Hap and Leonard themselves, whose unlikely friendship works because Lansdale simply accepts it – not overexplaining it or underexplaining it, but just letting it be, and letting these two men exist with all of their complications, contradictions, and personality. And I worried that the TV series might explain too much, or lean too heavily on the comedy over the noir (or vice versa), or soft pedal things…or, mainly, I just worried that it wouldn’t do the characters justice.
And yet, I’ll be damned if Hap and Leonard doesn’t work and then some. Adapting the first novel in the series, Savage Season, the first season tells the story of how Hap and Leonard end up entangled with Hap’s ex-wife, a group of 60’s revolutionaries looking for a lot of money to keep their ideals going, and a psychopathic drug dealer. As you’d expect with noir, there’s a slew of betrayals, a plot that keeps doubling back on itself, and all kinds of bad behavior, to say nothing of some brutal violence. But there’s also a lot of thematic richness, as these hippies (Hap included) try to make their peace with the change in the world, as well as dealing with what happens when your ideals die.
Even better, though, it deals with all of that while being exciting, bloody, and really funny. The casting can’t be shortchanged here, especially James Purefoy as Hap and Michael Kenneth Williams as Leonard. The two men play off of each other beautifully, depicting an old friendship between two very different people, and an easy comfort and familiarity that can’t be faked (Purefoy and Williams are reportedly friends in real life as well). That also means that both men get some great dialogue and one-liners, especially Williams, whose sarcastic (and cynical) worldview means he gets to be the voice of cynical realism at all times.
But the supporting cast is no slouch either. Christina Hendricks rocks as Trudy, Hap’s ex-wife, and turns what could have been a generic femme fatale role into something richer and more complicated – a performance that makes the character work, as her contradictions constantly surprise the viewer and the characters. And Jimmi Simpson just about steals the show as Soldier, the aforementioned drug dealer, with a scenery-chewing performance in the best way possible. Soldier is definitely the most over-the-top role in the series, but Simpson makes it work, creating a truly chilling villain who’s constantly watchable, and whose presence escalates the action in a way that’s impossible to ignore.
Hap and Leonard isn’t perfect, of course; it starts off a bit rushed, barrelling along without spending quite enough time setting the stage, and it stumbles a bit in the epilogue to the story. But by and large, the show works, bringing this world to life, and more importantly, capturing the vibe of the books wonderfully, and bringing all of the comedy, darkness, thematic richness, and character work to the screen. And given that the first book may be my least favorite so far (even though I like it a lot, I think the books only get better), here’s hoping that they get to keep making this show for a while to come.