In new Amazon drama, a vigilante judge with God as his witness
“Hand of God” opens with the bearlike Ron Perlman, playing a crooked judge, standing mesmerized and naked in a public fountain in his California hometown. His arms are raised to the sky, water rains down around him, and he’s speaking in tongues while an audience of passersby film with their phones.
OK, new Amazon drama, you may think, OK. I’m looking.
And as this new 10-episode series unfolds in one giant gesture after another, from a long-traveling trail of blood to an accused rapist baring his genitals to the victim through a one-way mirror, you may have that thought repeatedly. OK, “Hand of God,” OK. I’m looking. And eventually, despite the fact that you’re sitting still in your TV chair by the air conditioner eating ice cream, you may begin to sweat, the story is just so overheated, so crammed with the evil that men do and the helpless anger that women feel.
Which is to say that this series, created by Ben Watkins, is an attention-grabber, for sure. Very little that happens is done subtly, and more often than not, the scenes build to a physically and/or emotionally violent crescendo. It’s not boring. Almost every time we see Dana Delany, as the judge’s miserable wife, Crystal, she’s smoking pot like a leech on a jugular vein. How could that be boring? But it’s awfully wearing, like having your nose rubbed in malevolence and turgidity, without offering up enough character drama to make it worthwhile. Of the many cable antiheroes floating around out there in the “content” cosmos, Perlman’s Pernell Harris is not among the most layered. He’s little more than an obvious, selfish, piggy creep.
Pernell is one of fictional city San Vicente’s powers that be, a judge who can get anything he wants by pulling a string or two, including one attached to the mayor (played by Andre Royo, Bubbles from “The Wire”). Pernell’s name, I’m betting, is meant to trigger subconscious connections to “pernicious.” But his son, PJ (Johnny Ferro), tried to kill himself after his wife, Jocelyn (Alona Tal), was raped and he was forced to watch, and there’s no local string Pernell can pull to fix that. While PJ lies in a coma in the hospital, which is where the show begins, Pernell has a mental break and hallucinates signs and instructions from God. Thus the fountain frolic.
It gets more complicated, as Pernell links up with the sleazy preacher at the Hand of God Chapel, a con artist named Paul (Julian Morris) who was once an actor on “The Young and the Restless.” He gives the church $50,000, to the dismay of his wife. Pernell also takes on KD (Garret Dillahunt), a devout believer, an ex-convict, and a sociopath, to do his dirty work, including murder. Pernell believes that God will bring his son out of the coma if he can find and kill the rapist. Oddly, as his behavior becomes increasingly erratic in public, beyond the fountain episode, no one in San Vicente seriously tries to get him help or remove him from the bench.
The religious themes in “Hand of God” are ambitious, but then they don’t extend much farther than giving us a familiar hall of mirrors of hucksterism and feigned faith. Those who are running the services at the Hand of God chapel — not just Paul but his partner, Alicia (Elizabeth McLaughlin) — are greedy and seedy, and those who attend the services are gullible. Maybe we’re supposed to think Pernell has become an actual believer, as he tells his regular hooker, Tessie (Emayatzy Corinealdi), that in future appointments they can no longer have sex, just conversation. But it looks more like he’s using God to justify his vengeance, to give himself the sense of power he lost when his son tried to kill himself. His longtime God complex has turned literal.
In addition to organized religion, Watkins takes on the justice system, marriage, and just about any other institution you can think of. The show is a cauldron of cynicism, with only a possible bit of good intention in daughter-in-law Jocelyn and her friend, Josh (Hunter Parrish). “Hand of God” might have been a strong portrait of post-traumatic grief and spiritual thirst, of a controlling man out of control and desperate to bargain. Instead, it’s a carnival of malice.
HAND OF GOD
Starring: Ron Perlman, Julian Morris, Dana Delany, Andre Royo, Elizabeth McLaughlin, Garret Dillahunt, Alona Tal, Erykah Badu, Hunter Parrish, Jon Tenney, Emayatzy Corinealdi. On: Amazon.
Time: Available on Friday