Maybe the only thing you need to know about Hand of God — Amazon's uniquely terrible new drama, created by Ben Watkins — is that in the first episode, the main character attempts to make a woman identify her rapist by forcing her to look at another man's penis. It's the kind of ultra-grim moment that exists solely to provoke the audience, and it's a handy stand-in for essentially everything the show does wrong over the course of its first season.
This is a show that's unnecessarily bleak, far too impressed with its own edginess, and completely predictable to anyone who's watched television before. (I had the cliffhanger pegged within the pilot's opening five minutes. You can probably do better!) It's a bad show, yes, but the kind of bad show that's instructive. It's worth watching if you want to understand why assembling all of the talent in the world can't necessarily force a series to be good.
Here are 5 lessons to take away from this debacle.
1) Faith can be a good storytelling element. It can't be the only storytelling element.
At the center of Hand of God is Judge Pernell Harris, played by the always solid Ron Perlman. In the wake of his son's attempted suicide (the boy is now in a coma, hooked up to machines keeping him alive), Pernell abruptly turns toward hardline Christianity and begins receiving messages from God — messages that tell him to exact revenge upon those who drove his son to try killing himself. (That aforementioned rape? Pernell's daughter-in-law, Jocelyn [Alona Tal], suffered it, while her husband was forced to watch. Just a taste of the "fun" you're in for on this show.)
So the question of the show becomes if the messages Pernell is receiving are actually from God or are just the rantings of a mentally deluded man. The show very quickly leans toward them being some sort of divine missive, simply because they consist of things Pernell could never know. That's probably for the best. In any show where it seems like a person is either crazy or communicating with God, the answer is always the latter, because it's just more interesting from a storytelling perspective.
Pernell hooks up with a violent ex-con named K.D. (the always great Garret Dillahunt) to help him carry out his vengeance. He also attends a church that's presided over by a former soap star, and finds his new faith pushing away those within the city's power structure who had formerly embraced him most. So far, so adequate.
The problem with all of this is that the show isn't particularly interested in faith as it exists for so many people. Instead, it's primarily interested in faith as a means to an end. It's never immediately clear why everybody continues to take Pernell seriously when he seems to them to be hallucinating, and Pernell primarily perceives God's messages to him to be about dishing out retribution.
Occasionally, the show offers glimpses of some other, better series about religion in modern America, one where Pernell's conversion makes his life harder to manage. (In one moment, he threatens to baptize a Jewish man as a Christian, but it's a notion the show quickly drops as a needlessly provocative joke.) The question of how fundamentalist Christians co-exist with a world that isn't necessarily friendly to their beliefs is an interesting one and one well worth building a TV show around, but Hand of God isn't really compelled by that.
Or the series will have a scene where the fervency of belief is earnestly explored, and the question of why people are so driven to the church is of actual interest. Every so often, Pernell's church really does seem like a haven, and in those moments, the show almost sparks to life.
But Hand of God doesn't particularly care for people of faith. In most scenes, it seems to hold them in contempt, and in others, it mostly seems to regard them as uninteresting. Hand of God sees faith only as a way to get to what it's really interested in — unrelenting misery.
2) Make sure your dark, edgy content has a purpose beyond being dark and edgy
One of the few other shows on TV to take the notion of faith seriously is HBO's The Leftovers, an often brilliant examination of what happens back on Earth when a Rapture-like event occurs. That series is also one of TV's grimmest, a metaphorical examination of depression that almost never lets the audience off the hook.
But there's a rhyme and reason to Leftovers' grimness — it's intrinsically tied to both the series' plot and theme. There's no similar reason for the utter bleakness on display in Hand of God. It's the kind of show that thinks it's examining real and important issues because occasionally, two of the women in its cast will complain about being shut out by the boys' club or something similar.
The show's violence is simply there as a way to add blood and gore. Similarly, its scenes featuring sex are almost always sexless, there to toss in some nudity or similar.
The darkness is meant as a casual shorthand for how the world really works, unless you are the kind of bold, brave, hard man who can take a stand against the horrors. It's the kind of eye-rollingly dumb worldview that Hollywood can't help but keep engaging in, because it flatters those who traffic in it and those who watch it. "Yes," it whispers, "you have the courage to face life as it really is."
It's a seductive idea, but it's also a lie. Life is much, much more than misery. Hand of God considers this idea a couple of times, but by the end of season one, any moments of levity or humor have almost completely been sidelined.
3) Don't over-rely on a ludicrous plot
At the center of this seemingly supernatural drama is ... a complicated attempt to build a commercial real-estate park in a mid-sized city? Sure. That's what animated the book of Job, too, as I recall. The characters' goals are so prosaic — that real-estate project! get a church on TV! — that they clash utterly with the supernatural elements and with the completely ludicrous conspiracy plot that knits together the season.
By the first season finale of Hand of God, the storyline has gotten so convoluted and hard to swallow that the series itself starts making fun of it. It's too little, too late. The audience will have started mocking it long before that episode.
The characters are all attempting to find a book of poetry that maybe Jocelyn's rapist used her rape as a cover to steal, because it contained software files that Jocelyn's husband didn't want getting out to the larger world for reasons that always feel a little nebulous and dumb. This conspiracy is doled out in dribs and drabs, Pernell slowly rounding up the many conspirators, and it all starts to seem rather silly. If the judge has a direct line to the divine, wouldn't God give him better information? Why does he make Pernell solve everything like Murder, She Wrote's Jessica Fletcher, unless he needs to stretch the season to 10 episodes?
4) Make sure the characters have purposes beyond being functions of the plot
The primary goal of Hand of God is to provoke. Nearly every episode contains one gigantic, faux-edgy moment designed to leave the audience gasping, whether it's Pernell taking another wife or a white guy deciding that the level of money he's sunk into the real-estate project entitles him to be able to call the town's black mayor the N-word. It's all provocation, not that much thought.
This extends to the show's characters, who are mostly just there to serve the show's plot. Pernell and K.D. might be the best developed, but that also might be because they're played by such great actors.
On the other hand, the actors might not be the solution here. Otherwise capable players like Andre Royo (the mayor here; Bubbles from The Wire in the past), Dana Delany (as Pernell's wife, Crystal), and Tal find themselves stranded with lack of anything to play beyond reacting to Pernell's latest hijinks. The show halfheartedly tries to come up with storylines for them, but those storylines are almost always about reacting to Pernell or giving him something to react to himself.
The show is utterly uninterested in its characters when their lives don't intersect with the powerful man at its center. It pretends to be — and even does a fine job of doing so at times — but by season's end, it's clear. This is Pernell's story, and everybody else is just there to service it, whether that means staying married to him for no apparent reason or taking off their top whenever he's around.
5) Figure out what works and run toward that, not away from it
The most staggeringly awful thing about Hand of God is how often it comes close to actually working. There are moments throughout the run of the show — like elegant closing shots in the second and third episodes, or a moment when Jocelyn steps up to a reading in her husband's memory — that transcend the awfulness and feel human, raw, and real.
Above all else, Hand of God is a show that seems buried by its high concept. The show doesn't need an elaborate conspiracy. It doesn't need its fascination with misery. It maybe doesn't even need the messages from God. Its best moments are about the characters trying to resolve the Pernell they knew before his conversion with Pernell as he exists now, and about the characters trying to move past such a fundamental tragedy.
But Hand of God seems wary of being too small, too human. It only wants to operate in broad strokes, and it's those broad strokes that smother it every time. It almost seems afraid to get too personal, when the real story is in those tiny, keenly observed interactions. Hand of God never quite works because it forgets, at all turns, that it's a story about human beings, not symbols.
The complete first season of Hand of God is now streaming on Amazon Prime.