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Hap and Leonard review: watch this new SundanceTV crime thriller about '80s cowboys

Based on a series of books, the show is one part contemplative character drama, one part genre blast.

James Purefoy (left) and Michael K. Williams star as '80s cowboys in Hap and Leonard.
James Purefoy (left) and Michael K. Williams star as '80s cowboys in Hap and Leonard.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

You need to watch

Hap and Leonard. Based on a series of books by Joe Lansdale, this new SundanceTV show takes six episodes to unspool a tale of missing money and criminal activity in rural Texas.

James Purefoy (Rome, The Following) and Michael K. Williams (The Wire, Boardwalk Empire) star as the two titular characters, with Mad Men's Christina Hendricks playing Trudy, a mysterious woman from Hap's past.

Why you should watch



Simply put, Hap and Leonard hits a nice sweet spot between the contemplative character drama Sundance is known for and the tawdrier crime dramas TV does so well. Hap and Leonard are on the hunt for some money that disappeared at the bottom of a riverbed decades ago, up against all sorts of seedy characters who are also looking for that cash, and that gives the story the genre juice it needs to keep pumping.

But the series also devotes plenty of time to its characters. The draw between Hap and Leonard is the main reason to tune in, as Purefoy and Williams (friends offscreen, too) trade jousts and jabs in the manner of longtime friends who know everything about each other. The moments when we learn more about the pair's bond are at once insightful and moving.

It's Christina Hendricks!
Christina Hendricks stars as Trudy.

But the relationship between Trudy and Hap is just as important — and even more key to what Hap and Leonard is going for. This is a show, see, about the crippling grip of nostalgia and how we can never quite let go of our own pasts. Set in the 1980s, it's about characters obsessed with the '60s; the latter decade's hippie dreams seem as long gone as that drowned money when the series begins.

The show hails from someone who's honed exactly this kind of tonally adventurous storytelling skill on the big screen. Hap and Leonard was created by Jim Mickle and Nick Damici. Mickle is an indie filmmaker who's dabbling in television the way that many fellow indie filmmakers are doing right now; Damici has helped write — and starred in — many of his films. Mickle's work is known for a strong character core, but also for heavy genre elements that cause a pleasing tonal mashup between head and gut, brains and brawn.

And he's excited about how TV can tell stories like this, and always has. He likes middle-tier stories, he told me, stories that might take place among a limited number of characters, or in a limited setting, but where there's still a pulpy, genre side to things. And movies increasingly don't have room for that sort of premise.

"A lot of really successful television shows would never be able to really break through the superhero crunch of what movies have become," Mickle says.

Michael K. Williams.
Michael K. Williams leans majestically.

Mickle and Damici previously adapted another Lansdale novel for the big screen, 2014's Cold in July (though that story doesn't feature the Hap and Leonard characters), and Hap and Leonard even features elements that speak to Mickle's roots in making horror films like Stake Land and We Are What We Are.

He might be just what Sundance is looking for. Though the network typically mounts very good television, it's not highly watched television. From the life-after-prison tale Rectify to the French undead drama The Returned, the network is full of ruminative shows that are brilliant but seem designed to play better in a later Netflix binge.

That may prove true of Hap and Leonard too, but it's not for lack of trying. The first episode is packed with juicy moments, in terms of both character and unexpected plot twists. By the end of the pilot, the show's combination of thematic thoughtfulness, buddy criminal character moments, and shocking blood spatter are very much in place.

"These guys are sort of cowboys out of time," Mickle told me, saying that's why it was fun to situate them in the '80s. And that Western vibe, with a "sense and morality that goes back centuries," proves the perfect spice to tie together this genre stew.

When it's on

Hap and Leonard debuts Wednesday, March 2, at 10 pm Eastern on Sundance. New episodes will air weekly, and for cable subscribers they'll also be available on demand and at Sundance's website. Given Sundance's longstanding relationship with Netflix, expect the series to turn up there at some point.

You'll know if you're in or out by…

The last scene of the pilot, which is everything Hap and Leonard does well in a nutshell. It will have you either running for the exit or gleefully waiting for more.