MGM-owned premium cable network Epix has, for a few years, been working to define itself as an outlet for original programming. Their latest attempt, “Perpetual Grace, LTD.,” seeks the audience’s favor by cloaking itself both the familiar. The show’s cast includes familiar faces like Jimmi Simpson of “Westworld,” Terry O’Quinn of “Lost,” and Oscar nominees Sir Ben Kingsley and Jacki Weaver; its giddy amorality-in-the-American-sticks formula seems borrowed from “Ozark,” which itself owes a debt to “Breaking Bad.” (Both that late-2000s noir and this one, a decade later, are set in the deserts of New Mexico, which feels like no coincidence.) Little here feels new, and it’s not a skillful enough pastiche to demand you find Epix on your dial.
Simpson plays a con artist who seeks to ensnare a pair of religious leaders who seem like easy marks; he plans to have them kidnapped so that he can pretend to be their son and enrich himself with their life insurance. While Simpson’s James easily meshes into this couple’s lives (aided by their actual son, a floundering ne’er-do-well played by Damon Herriman) he comes to discover that the pastor and his wife are more formidable than he’d initially believed.
All of which makes for the outset of a compelling enough noir, if one indebted, too, to “Fargo” — but the telling is all. “Perpetual Grace” relies on lugubrious and lengthy flashbacks shot in black-and-white, so exaggeratedly haunted that heavy-handed veins of quirk, when they surface, seem less like counterpoint and more like jarring, unpleasant contrast. And Kingsley’s Pastor Brown is so obviously containing sociopathic multitudes, thanks to a performance with little shading over its tough, aggressive venom, that the story lacks suspense.
“Perpetual Grace” is a shot at accomplishing something that’s been accomplished already, many times, elsewhere: Launching a dark antihero drama in which the concept of self-interest is practically a character itself. But familiarity breeds contempt, particularly when what’s familiar is contempt — the sneering, preening tone struck by characters distinguished by nastiness and little more. To find the next “Breaking Bad” — which is to say, the next drama that breaks out in a big way — networks should start by building shows that look nothing like “Breaking Bad” at all.
“Perpetual Grace, LTD.” Epix. June 2. Ten episodes (two screened for review).
Executive Producers: Steve Conrad, Bruce Terris.
Cast: Jimmi Simpson, Sir Ben Kingsley, Jacki Weaver, Terry O’Quinn, Damon Herriman, Kurtwood Smith, Luis Guzman.