When Judge Pernell Harris (Ron Perlman) is born again, one of the first casualties is his standing appointment with sex worker Tessie Graham (Emayatzy Corinealdi). After revealing his newfound faith in the series premiere, His Honor maintains the relationship, but the $1500 he shells out for each rendezvous now pays for conversation, not coitus. “He’s taking this Christian trip very seriously,” Tessie later confides to a friend, though the same can’t be said of Amazon’s repugnant new series, “Hand of God.” Rather, writer/creator Ben Watkins approaches his subject—desperate, possibly deranged faith—as little more than a mechanism for meting out trauma. For a series so enamored of its own solemnity, the “Hand of God” view of religion is laughably insubstantial, and it turns out the joke is on us.
We first see Harris stark naked, speaking in tongues, standing in the middle of a fountain in San Vicente, Calif., and the series frequently undermines its fascination with the extremities of belief by framing them in such faintly mocking fashion. As Harris, with the assistance of ex-felon and fellow devout Keith Dennison (Garrett Dillahunt), seeks revenge for the rape of his daughter-in-law, Jocelyn (Alona Tal), “Hand of God” asks the viewer to assent to the notion that his quest is driven by divine intervention, and then renders the supernatural in feeble, almost disapproving terms.
Built from miracles, prophecies, hallucinations, and glossolalia—all of which continue to be occasional features of religion, in the United States as elsewhere—Harris’ faith nevertheless seems strangely halfhearted, at least in the sense that “Hand of God” frames such experiences as unfortunate excesses, rather than expressions of fervor. Situating Harris’ visions of blood trickling and pooling in hospital corridors and parquet ballrooms, the series, perhaps inadvertently, simulates the perspective of the skeptic, warily cordoning off these interludes as exotic, as strange. “Hand of God” focuses on the horrors we perpetrate in the name of faith, but in the main it sees faith itself as too hot to handle.
Complicating matters is the fact that Harris’ pastor at the Hand of God Chapel, a former “The Young and the Restless” actor named Paul (Julian Morris), is a slimy, skillful con man, extracting $500 a week from parishioners for the pleasure of being hoaxed. As John Oliver recently reaffirmed, hucksters are as common as soothsayers in American religion—in fact, they’re often one and the same—yet even on this front “Hand of God” is threadbare; Paul and his vixenish partner, Alicia (Elizabeth McLaughlin), can’t muster anything close to the dangerous allure of “prosperity gospel,” and still the flock grows, unabated.
Except in the most familiar of terms—Harris’ pursuit of Jocelyn’s rapist begins when he hears the voice of his son, P.J. (Johnny Ferro), who tries to take his own life after being forced to watch his wife’s assault and lands in a coma—”Hand of God” actually evinces little concern for the whys and wherefores of religion. The series prefers to see the amassed faithful as set dressing, a bunch of dupes without stories or sorrow songs to accompany their investment in the Hand of God. Even Harris, a descendant of San Vicente’s founder, with a reputation for applying the maximum sentence to every case that crosses his docket, emerges as a man whose righteousness appears mostly hollow. Played by Perlman with bearish vehemence, his aggression is that of the animal protecting his turf; indeed, his wealth, influence, and unapologetically rough treatment of adversaries real and imagined smacks slightly of “Trumpism.”
In the end, beset by a half-baked subplot involving mayor Robert Boston (Andre Royo) and the lucrative plan to bring a new corporate campus to town, not to mention Dana Delany’s sorely underwritten role as Harris’ wife, Crystal, “Hand of God” relishes trauma far more than any wayward attempt to salve it. At one point, impelled by one of his hallucinations, Harris accuses a local police officer of Jocelyn’s rape—and then, in a truly ghastly scene, forces her to examine his penis as if in a lineup. She spits in Harris’ face to express her disgust and the man in question later admits (under duress) to the crime, but both of these details are cold comfort when one considers the shallowness of the series’ commitment to God’s hand in human affairs, whether authentic or faked. The purpose of “Hand of God” is not to examine how religion functions, for good or for ill, but to use a relatively novel conduit to deliver the usual, ugly rudiments of “weighty” television.
Unfortunately, drama rarely works when it derides the very premises of the universe it inhabits. (That would be satire, which “Hand of God,” whose dim, tinny, self-serious aesthetic suggests a mimeograph of “True Detective,” is not nearly sharp enough to carry off.) Imagine if “Mad Men” belittled its characters’ commitment to advertising, or “Breaking Bad” treated the meth trade as mere aberration: like the paper doves strung above Paul’s sham congregation, “Hand of God” is, in both senses of the phrase, a transparent instance of bad faith.