With faith-based films dominating the box office, television has jumped on the trend, trotting out Christian-themed series like “A.D. The Bible Continues” and “Killing Jesus” intended to attract audiences seeking the gospel in their binge-viewing experience.
“Hand of God” is not one of these shows.
Ben Watkins’ (“Burn Notice”) Amazon series certainly depends on a superficial interest in the good book, but the hour-long drama isn’t out to convert prospective members or pander to established believers. It’s a rough-edged, cold-blooded, sometimes downright disgusting portrayal of one family’s struggle to understand the difference between reality and delusion in a time of crisis.
The premise is initially intriguing, which explains why people would be excited to see more following the pilot (including us). After his son attempts suicide because his wife was raped in front of his eyes (this show is just a barrel of laughs), Judge Pernell Harris (Ron Perlman) is discovered butt naked in a fountain speaking in tongues and claiming to be born again. His newfound faith stems from an encounter with a start-up church calling itself Hand of God, and, upon visiting his son in the hospital, the judge begins to hear voices in his head and experience visions claiming to lead him to the person who raped his daughter-in-law. He believes the voice is his son’s, and others (of course) argue he’s had a mental breakdown. Events occur that could support either argument as our not-so-good Judge Harris goes further and further down the rabbit hole.
Presenting the parallels between faith and lunacy is well-covered ground in both film and television. From “The Exorcist” to “Holy Man” and “The X-Files” to “The Leftovers,” debating the thin line between healthy religious beliefs and complete mental breakdowns has been done to death. Writers need a fresh, strong and often daring take on the topic to make it relevant for modern audiences. “The Leftovers” is an elite example of all three, while “Hand of God” is essentially the opposite. Redundant, inept and masking its tired tropes with shockingly dark drama, Amazon’s latest original series coasts on its central mystery without ever digging into the questions it brings up. As episodes pass by and nothing relevant is resolved, the show’s misunderstanding and misapplication of its central motif becomes more and more troublesome.
Others have already chronicled how “Hand of God” presents an ugly, ill-conceived Old vs. New Testament showdown — and, to be fair, the cast performs admirably under the circumstances — but the real issue for TV fans unconcerned with (or sympathetic to) biblical ignorance is the show’s B.C. views on women. Despite a cast with four prominent female characters, I’m not sure “Hand of God” even passes the Bechdel test; an equality gauge for films, making this TV show’s failure all the worse after 10 hours of scripted discussion.
Dana Delaney, as Mrs. Judge Crazy Pants, is given the best chance of breaking out. Repeatedly, in what eventually seems like an effort to stem criticism the writers know is coming, Crystal tells friends and adversaries how she’s a self-made woman who’s earned everything she has on her own. Well-off and in a position of power at her company, Mrs. Harris is nevertheless nothing more than that; her husband’s wife. Despite what she says she’s done, nothing she actually does on the show is in service to herself. Instead, she’s merely trying to protect her husband from himself or the suspicious public eye.
Delaney does manage to elevate the character from time to time. There’s a scene in which she confronts the Hand of God Pastor, Reverend Paul Curtis (Julian Morris), and his girlfriend, Alice (Elizabeth McLaughlin, who we’ll come back to shortly), for taking advantage of her grieving husband by offering him false hope and cashing the checks to pay for it. Spotting a glass on her fancy piano, Crystal walks over to Alice and effortlessly but deliberately slides a coaster under her drink without missing a beat in her threatening speech. With a quick motion and quicker glance, Delaney gives her character more power than any dialogue in the script.
Her daughter-in-law Jocelyn, meanwhile, is cast as the conflicted, grief-stricken, soon-to-be-widow still suffering from repressed PTSD after her rape. That’s a lot for an actress to take on, in addition to the complexity of responding to a husband who tried to kill himself because he had to watch her be raped. (That statement, in and of itself, is both reflective of the show’s attitude toward women and troubling by itself as the basis for a TV series.) Alona Tal (“Burn Notice,” “Supernatural”) does an admirable job, but frankly it’s unbelievable this woman is even up and walking around let alone worrying about appearances. The fact that she does both and somehow still remains in service to her vegetable husband, his best friend and a father-in-law who does the unspeakable to her in the very first episode, pushes the character past the edge of believability and into a writer’s device taking on too much weight.
Finally, we’re also treated to two women who are broken down to something almost solely sexual. Emayatzy Corinealdi plays Judge Harris’ high class call girl, a woman whose pride in her work and clear financial success is meant to cast her in a better light than the character ever provides for herself. Like most people in “Hand of God,” Tessie talks, a lot, but says a lot of the same things over and over again. She likes her job. She cares about Pernell. She’s not going to be judged by anyone, not even you, dear reader. She is above reproach, even if her reasons for standing by the Judge’s side become harder and harder to believe (outside of story necessity for a big twist during the season finale).
Both Tessie and Alice, the Reverend’s girlfriend, are also shown
one five too many times in awkward sexual encounters, with the latter suffering one scene of being leered at by a creepy ex-con played by Garrett Dillahunt. Though meant to convey his legitimate interest in her (as well as his ability to restrain himself, as he has a predilection for violent outbursts), the thread only leads to more servitude for yet another female character who’s not as defined as she claims to be. “Hand of God” may catch most of its flack for its shallow representation of faith, but even the Bible treats women better than this.