Friday, September 4, 2015

REVIEW: 'Hand of God' - Pernell Becomes a Born Again Believer and Disrupts the Lives of the People Around Him in 'Pilot'

Amazon's Hand of God - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

After the attempted suicide of his only son, Judge Pernell Harris believes he can hear the voice of God, and the voice is telling him to find out who raped PJ's wife Jocelyn - the reason PJ tried to end his life - and bring him to justice. Spurred on by a questionable pastor named Reverend Paul, he teams up with KD, a zealot and violent ex-con, and sets on a vigilante mission.

Hand of God is a show that's easy to understand why it got made in the first place even though it's not particularly good. It comes out of a development era where anti-heroes were the big trend as each network and storyteller wanted their own Breaking Bad or Dexter or The Shield. The story of this show is completely unique but the establishment of the characters and their relation to each other is filled with familiarity. There's a reason why the industry has largely moved past these types of shows. Audiences have become overwhelmed with them to the point where its hard for any of them to truly break out and be good.

Hand of God was a part of the online streaming service's third batch of pilots that debuted in August 2014. That's over a year ago and it's just now debuting all episodes of its first season today. Sure, it's the first show ordered from that cycle to debut. But the turnaround at Amazon isn't that great. Despite that though, there will be an audience for this show. There is one for every anti-hero show like this out there. The barometer of success is just different at each network - Low Winter Sun fails at AMC but Ray Donovan thrives on Showtime. All Amazon needs from this show is to have a niche audience that is really passionate about it. The quality of its cast and its creative team ensures that people will be engaged. That should be enough. It's what led to the series order. Now the actual storytelling needs to take over.

The story of Hand of God is a lot to handle. It feels like the show is cramming a bunch of topics into it in order to make it seem as culturally relevant and hot button as possible. This premiere is 66 minutes of almost pure audaciousness that never fully comes together. Everything about the way the story is told feels like the show going from plot beat to plot beat. There's no real reason to care about any of these characters and what they are up to in the wake of a changing reality. They are basic plot constructs and nothing more than that.

Ron Perlman is capable of being a great actor when given great material. He is allowed to slightly over play things here because the character doesn't immediately seem all that engaging. The premiere literally opens with his Judge Pernell Harris naked in a public fountain speaking in tongues. He is a man with some questionable mental health problems at the moment. But it's never told in a way that intrigues and makes the answers feel necessary. This is simply a story about a man who may be hearing the voice of God after a massive tragedy or he could just be going insane. That's the core thrust of the narrative. It's how all the other characters of the story are defined. Their relationship to Pernell helps shape their importance to the narrative.

His wife Crystal and close friend Bobo are very concerned about his mental state. They don't believe he has heard from God. They just need him to be properly treated so that they can continue living the way that they have been. Crystal is just as capable of getting things done as her husband but he has put her in a position where he seems crazy and is being taken advantage of. Bobo also happens to be the Mayor of this California city and needs Pernell's continued support in order to keep an important land development for the area on track. The land deal feels especially extraneous here - but could also be something of vast importance later on. Pernell disappearing for three days and returning a changed man is destroying their reality. That's something that they don't want to happen. They have too much to lose as a result of it.

Pernell's daughter-in-law Jocelyn is caught in the middle of all of this. She is the one most emotionally hurt from Pernell's crazy antics. He is so focused on finding justice for his son's suicide that he causes Jocelyn even more pain from a very traumatic experience. It's not that great that the show thinks it has earned using rape as a tool to show the emotional depths and realities of its characters. It's a very sensitive subject that should only be tackled with the upmost respect. It is not on this show. It's sensationalized to the point where the action builds to one man having to disrobe at a police station in order to have his genitalia identified by Jocelyn. It's a horrible way to derive tension. If the entire purpose was to get the audience on Jocelyn's side, then it did its job. But she's not really a character beyond this story either. She's wallowing in the wake of her husband being dead but still technically being here.

Pernell desperately wants to believe that his son will make a full recovery from his injuries and that he will return the same man he always was. He fully believes the voices and images he is seeing come from PJ. They are a message from God on how to handle this situation. Plenty of shows have been able to use religion as a storytelling device before. But here, it's just so ambivalent. No one on the show seems to have a genuine relationship with religion which lessons the impact it has on the narrative. The two supporting characters who have devout religious beliefs are both introduced in very sociopathic ways. First, there's Reverend Paul Curtis. He is Pernell's spiritual guide. The man who baptized Pernell and made him a born again believer. But he's also no more than a conman trying to run from a past. And then, there's KD, a violent criminal who's very temperamental and unpredictable. He does seem to take his faith very serious. But he is easily manipulated because of it. Who knows if Pernell believes they were destined to work together to make this world a better place! But it's what KD believes to the point that he's willing to kill a man just because Pernell said so. That wasn't earned. It just happened to give the premiere a cliffhanger note to end on.

The person Pernell believes raped Jocelyn which led to PJ's suicide says that more people are connected to it than they realize. That means there is a conspiracy behind a rape. Doesn't that sound like something fascinating to watch play out over multiple episodes? Not really. It actually sounds horrendous. This premiere doesn't do a great job of setting the stage for a good drama. But it's cast does elevate the appeal of it all. Perhaps with more time the characters will start to feel more real than they do now. Or perhaps this is another show where the plot and story will swallow the show whole.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Ben Watkins and directed by Marc Forster.
  • As if there was any doubt that Pernell was a bad person, he is also regularly cheating on his wife with an escort - though he wants to stop having sex with her now that he's born again. First of all, who would ever cheat on Dana Delany?
  • Julian Morris' American accent is slightly inconsistent which hopefully won't continue to be bothersome moving forward.
  • Also, it's horrible that two female characters are sexual objects and nothing more than that - Pernell's escort and the Reverend's assistant. Another one is largely defined by the sexual assault that happened to her. And then, there's Crystal who isn't like that at all but who doesn't have a great hook to her either.
  • A ticking time clock is placed on the narrative by the end of the episode. Pernell only has a 48 hour court order to keep his son alive. That may bring some necessary urgency to the narrative as he has to get some sign that all hope is not lost.

As noted from previous series released all at once, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments section, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.