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Bad Preachers and the 'Hand of God'
Image: Amazon
Ron Perlman in 'Hand of God'

Hand of God, Amazon Original Pilot

I love the good ministers on TV and at the movies. But I think we’ve got to learn to watch bad ministers better, too.

Let me explain.

This is the third “pilot season” that Amazon.com has put together, which works this way: you can watch five pilot episodes of new series (three comedy, two drama), then vote to decide which one gets made into an Amazon Original series. There have been five Originals—three of which are for children—but this year’s offerings seem to be swinging for the fences. All five include are for adults (at times, aggressively so) and involve some well-known talent; two are also helmed by film veterans: Cosmopolitans, written and directed by Whit Stillman, and Hand of God, written by Burn Notice’s Ben Watkins and directed by Marc Forster (World War Z, Machine Gun Preacher, Stranger Than Fiction, Finding Neverland).

You’ll probably like Cosmopolitans , set among a group of slightly self-important young expats in Paris, if you like Whit Stillman’s movies: Metropolitan, Barcelona, Last Days of Disco, Damsels in Distress. It’s a talky sardonic-but-affectionate light comedy of manners.

But Hand of God, as the title implies, is interested in matters of religion, particularly in how it affects the balance of power and violence in America. (Be aware that there’s some nudity, violence, lots of bad language, and some disturbing adult themes on the level of your average prestige cable drama.)

Pernell Harris, a corrupt judge—played by Ron Perlman who, either appropriately or ironically, also played Hellboy—is found naked in a fountain in the middle of town, speaking in tongues. They haul him out and have him examined for psychological trauma, but he thinks he might have been “born again,” against his will: baptized in the spirit by an itinerant preacher of the sort we see on TV quite a bit these days (True Detective, Justified). Without giving much away, there’s also a subplot with some violence in the past enacted on his daughter-in-law; the judge is fairly certain God’s speaking to him and telling him to take revenge—er, seek justice. Oh, and there’s a violent offender/preacher just out of prison. And the mayor, who needs some real estate development to go through. It’s a little messy and I’m not convinced the show isn’t derivative of some other shows on TV right now, not yet, but if it gets another episode I’ll watch it.

Earlier this summer, at The AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff explored how the “dark drama” is looking heavenward. In other words, God’s back on TV:

What makes the emergence of faith and religion as a thematic device in The Americans, Hannibal, and Fargo so interesting, however, is that these themes were far more than incidental coloring around the edges of the story. They were deeply important to the show’s recent seasons, though all in ways that spoke to the shows’ respective strengths. What’s more, all three series are likely to be heavy contenders in whatever year-end “best of TV” lists critics ponder once 2014 winds to a close, and the emergence of God as an unseen but often powerful character on all three provides just another sense of how all seemed to be having a weird conversation with each other, to the exclusion of all other shows.

I'm not sure it's the exclusion of other shows, or at least not anymore. Hand of God is a lot like The Leftovers (which gets its season finale this Sunday): it’s not clear for the bulk of the show whether the main character (Kevin / Pernell) is actually a prophet or is just going crazy; both seem to be seeking vigilante justice for reasons that could either be righteous or wholly self-motivated; both have dark secrets. And for another reason, too: God is not yet an actual character in either of these shows, though he might be later. He may exist in these universes, or he may not. It might be divine revelation, or it might be imbalanced brain chemistry.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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Bad Preachers and the 'Hand of God'