As ambitious, premium-style dramas proliferate, it’s easy to confuse dark and nasty with cool and good. Few programs have put the gap between those poles into starker relief than “Hand of God,” a thoroughly ill-conceived and unpleasant series that continues Amazon’s struggle to match its comedy inroads (see “Transparent”) on the dramatic front. Providing a starring vehicle for Ron Perlman, who joins director Marc Forster and writer Ben Watkins among its producers, the show strands a good cast, making the 10-episode run (all of which was made available) feel less like a gripping mystery than a grueling endurance contest.
Viewers are spared the worst of the brutal act that sets the entire story in motion, but are treated to endless references to it. Perlman plays Pernell Harris, the powerful judge and influential heir in the fictional town of San Vicente, Calif. When the show begins, his son PJ lies in a coma, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, after having watched his wife, Jocelyn (Alona Tal), raped repeatedly in front of him.
Having already suffered in unimaginable ways, Jocelyn wants to take her husband off life support. But Pernell objects and fights her at every turn. Obviously wracked by guilt (for reasons that belatedly become clear), he is lured in by a money-grubbing young pastor (Julian Morris) with a shady past, exploiting how Pernell clings to the hope that his son will miraculously awaken. And with that push, Pernell begins to experience visions that he thinks will lead him toward who was responsible, since the culprit has never been caught.
Conveniently, Pernell finds an instrument to help him act on what he says as these divine messages: a former white supremacist, KD (Garret Dillahunt), who has, too, found Jesus. After KD passes through his court, Pernell convinces him of serve as his personal avenger, violently investigating the cryptic signs both men believe the Almighty is conveying.
All this would be less head-scratching if the central character managed to hold things together and put on a brave face to the world. But his behavior becomes increasingly erratic and bizarre, much to the chagrin of his tough-as-nails wife (Dana Delany); the high-class prostitute (Emayatzy Corinealdi) Pernell regularly frequents; and, last but not least, the town mayor (“The Wire’s” Andre Royo), who desperately needs Pernell to assist in pushing through a major construction project — unfortunately, the plot brings “True Detective 2” to mind — so much so that nary an episode goes by when he doesn’t use the expression “concrete pour.”
For “Hand of God” to have a chance at working, in other words, would require some finesse about Pernell’s mental state. Yet as written and played, subtlety is an early casualty, and it’s hard to see a scenario where the judge wouldn’t be committed, no matter how important he is to the local community, instead of being repeatedly indulged when he mutters, “I need justice for PJ.”
With all the grit and gravel he brings to such pronouncements, Perlman (a far cry from “Hellboy” mode) might actually be a more natural fit for Dillahunt’s part. Ultimately, it’s the writing that handcuffs the cast, with Delany in particular — despite frequent opportunities to bare her claws — deserving better coming on the heels of “The Comedians,” another, albeit very different show in which she portrayed the wife to a wealthy middle-aged guy in the throes of existential angst.
“Hand of God” should benefit, somewhat, from the ability to binge it, if only due to curiosity as to whether Watkins (whose credits include “Burn Notice”) and company actually have a payoff pitch. But when all’s said and done, the finish isn’t any more satisfying than the laborious hike to get there. And in terms of identifying where this Amazon drama veered off course, the devil can be found in more than just the details.