Photo: James Minchin III (SundanceTV)

Even more so than past years, the new season of Hap And Leonard is deceptively breezy and charming—odd when you consider the first episode ends with the protagonists walking outside to discover an American flag with its pole slammed through their windshield and a racial slur spray-painted on the side of their car.

But that’s always been a good chunk of the appeal of this Southern neo-noir: It’s a period piece set 30 years ago that doesn’t feel the need to hang a lampshade on the sorry state of white supremacy in America, particularly the more visually stark nature found in the lower half of the country. The friendship between a white man and a black man at the heart of this show (and Joe R. Lansdale’s novels that provide the source material) has always been a messy, relatable, and endearing one. Hap Collins (James Purefoy) and Leonard Pine (Michael K. Williams) exude a rock-solid brotherly relationship that stands in quiet contrast to the battling ideologies of the time playing out all around them. As we watched them participate in ill-conceived crime capers in season one, or struggle to solve a rash of unsolved murders in season two, racial tensions were a constant backdrop to the story, a fact of daily life that both characters addressed with cynical humor and withering disgust in equal measure. But it never took center stage—not until now, with Hap And Leonard: The Two-Bear Mambo.

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If you’re worried that a season that revolves around racial animus would be harder to watch, fear not: This is the most goofball-humor season yet. Perhaps it’s the result of Purefoy and Williams growing ever more comfortable in the skin of their likable alter egos; perhaps it’s an intentional move to keep things fun on the part of creators Nick Damici and Jim Mickle (here adapting the third book in Lansdale’s series), who have liberally peppered broad comedy into the scripts and continue to share the majority of writing and directing credits; maybe it’s a combination of both. Either way, there are moments of levity here as jokey and slapstick as Three’s Company. What keeps it all on the right side of eye-rolling is the charisma of the leads and the quality work being done by everyone in front of and behind the camera.

Each season of Hap And Leonard can work on its own as a stand-alone miniseries, no previous story required, and this season is no different. Sure, it’s useful to know that no-nonsense lawyer Florida Grainge (Tiffany Mack) had a flirtatious relationship and a one-night stand with Hap last season, but it’s not necessary. The setup is agreeably straightforward: Florida disappeared while working a case in the nearby Texas town of Grovetown, known for its KKK-inflected racism, and Hap and Leonard venture off into the hostile municipality to try and find her. Once there, they stumble upon a murder case, a sheriff with ambiguous loyalties, and an unceasing coldness to their friendship with its racist-baiting symbolism.

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Photo: James Minchin III (SundanceTV)

As always, much of the appeal of the series lies in the lived-in nature of the surroundings, with Mickle and Damici creating a fully realized and diverse world of the working poor, always scrabbling to get a little bit ahead only to find themselves stuck in the economic mud. These are characters who accept the fucked-up nature of the world, and just try to get through the day while keeping some sense of happiness in the face of hardship. In the case of Grovetown, however, accepting things as they are is a whole lot harder. The place is populated by more than the average share of avowed racists, especially Officer Reynolds (Lauren Allen), who at one point casually mentions that a group of black folks seem “almost human.” Leonard—whose Vietnam vet backstory, identity as an out gay man (in a time and place where that was really not accepted), and anger management issues already make him a walking itchy trigger finger—is essentially a lit fuse wandering around a place like Grovetown.

But the smart, rich dialogue goes a long way toward demonstrating how people of color survive against oppression and segregation—and how hard-bitten cynical humor comes in handy. When the pair are told to look for Florida on the black side of town, Hap wonders where that could be, and Leonard clues him in: “Usually near the city dump… sewage plant… nuclear reactor, if they got one.” Conversely, when they arrive at the black club, Hap is told by a local to wait in the car due to the “no honkies” policy, only to eventually realize the sign he was partially glimpsing reads, “No honking.” Their conversations represent that TV rarity, conversations between black and white men that refuse to either pretend to be color-blind or treat every mention of race with the straight-faced seriousness of an after-school special. The show doesn’t kowtow to progressive-TV norms, instead letting its characters talk about life in ways that let viewers fill in the subtext about structural violence, and Hap and Leonard themselves function as the living embodiment of unfussy enlightenment in the face of segregation.

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Photo: James Minchin III (SundanceTV)

None of which is to say the show is some incisive critique of race and culture. The villains here are KKK-embracing villains of the worst sort, the kind we used to call “cartoonish” before current events put so many of them back in the mainstream news. Their leader is a mustache-twirling Pat Healy, as watchable as ever in the role of a land-owning bigot who acts like he runs the town, because he indirectly does. Corbin Bernsen also turns in good work as the sheriff, a man with a massively swollen testicle who keeps hinting he may not be as bad as his fellow townsfolk. And Louis Gossett Jr. brings a weathered grace to his resigned diner cook, who doubles as a morgue employee when a young black man is brought in and the other coroner won’t do the work.

As the show jumps back and forth in time, the narrative is told as a constant series of flashbacks, with Hap and Leonard in the present day shown beaten and battered, before we cut back to three days earlier and events start to unfold. By the fourth episode, which cleverly uses the device of a found tape recorder to fill in what happened to Florida before she disappeared, The Two-Bear Mambo has found an engaging rhythm. Mickle’s camera work is excellent as always, painting evocative landscapes and worn faces with equal beauty, and the other directors following his lead. (There’s a shot of a girl playing in a field, dandelion fuzz dancing all about her, that wouldn’t be out of place in a Terrence Malick film.) But ultimately, watching Hap And Leonard feels like spending time in the company of old friends: The jokes are corny because they’ve told them a hundred times, but the pleasure is in the warm and reassuring company they provide. The fact that they’re risking their lives to fight some evil racist bastards and find their friend is just the thrilling icing on the cake.

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