In Watch This, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff tells you what she’s watching on TV — and why you should watch it too. Read the archives here. This week: Epix’s Perpetual Grace LTD, whose first four episodes are currently available to stream.
It’s a sign of how diffuse the TV universe has become that Steve Conrad, the creator of Amazon’s Patriot and Epix’s Perpetual Grace LTD (which he co-created with Bruce Terris), doesn’t have a contract with a specific network. Just 10 years ago, he would have been locked up at an FX or an HBO in a sweetheart deal intended to keep him making TV shows. Now he’s noodling away on his visions of an American empire in decline out on the fringes of the Peak TV landscape.
The result is that to watch Perpetual Grace LTD — one of the most delightfully oddball new shows of the summer — you’ll have to all but consult a GPS to find Epix in the hinterlands of your cable guide or subscribe to the channel’s Epix Now service, a suggestion I can already feel most of you bristling at. (It also has a lot of recent Hollywood movies if that’s your jam!)
But there’s something to the idea that part of loving a show like this is feeling like you’re getting in on the ground floor of something weird and strange and new. So even though Perpetual Grace LTD airing on such an out-of-the-way channel is certainly a hindrance to it suddenly becoming the biggest hit in existence or even a cult favorite, it also feels somehow appropriate for the show’s constant stream of utterly bizarre and wonderful delights.
Perpetual Grace LTD takes place at the intersection of faith, commerce, and crime
At the center of Perpetual Grace LTD is a simple crime with so many moving parts that any one of them could go wrong. Jimmi Simpson plays James, a would-be scoundrel who stumbles upon the perfect plot after meeting a young man named Paul at a bar: get addicted to methadone so that he can be taken in by Paul’s estranged parents, the Browns.
The Browns are an older Christian couple played by Ben Kingsley and Jacki Weaver. The church that Mr. Brown pastors also has some sort of attached rehab and recovery program (hence the methadone). By convincing them he’s found their missing son, James plans to send them to Mexico, where they will be briefly imprisoned by a local sheriff on the take (Luis Guzmán). Meanwhile, James will assume Paul’s identity (to keep the actual Paul above suspicion) and empty their bank account of $4 million, to be split between James and Paul.
Things fall apart, surprise, surprise.
It is not too big of a spoiler to say that James is being played — sometimes by multiple people — because you don’t cast Kingsley as a kindly old man if you don’t intend to use him as a powder keg in some fashion. But the show has several tricks up its sleeve when it comes to just how this particular game of cat-and-mouse plays out. I’m still not sure where Perpetual Grace LTD will go after a first season of 10 episodes (I’ve seen four), but Conrad is really good at stretching out his storytelling without slowing things down.
He has a gift for finding perfectly chosen, singular images. In the premiere alone, there’s a caged bird in the middle of a house fire, a bloody foot in the dirt, and an astronaut where no astronaut should be. Conrad has big ideas on his mind, about how capitalism squeezes people dry and how modern American Christianity aids and abets it, but he’s so good at crafting sharp plot turns and dreamy images that Perpetual Grace LTD never feels didactic or preachy.
As with Conrad’s other show, the lovely and mournful Patriot, Perpetual Grace LTD is worth watching less for its plot — which is fun and twisty but also not exactly anything new — and much more for its overall vibe. Conrad’s work examines the crumbling weight of American institutions. On Patriot, he focused on the slow strangulation of working-class America and American institutions. On Perpetual Grace LTD, he’s turned his sights to the uneasy intersection of faith, commerce, and crime.
Conrad creates antihero shows, about bad people who do bad things, but he roots them in an overall thesis about how America creates those bad people and why they’re a logical outcome of a system that hollows out social institutions in the name of making more and more money. The church used to mean something, but now it’s a husk. All anybody cares about is how much money they have in the bank, and how much you can be fleeced for. If there was ever anything else, it’s long turned to dust.