Hand of God: A Dark, Violent, Vigilante Drama About Religion

Amazon Studios’s new TV drama focuses on a judge who mysteriously converts to fundamentalist Christianity while pursuing the men who assaulted his daughter-in-law.

Amazon Studios

Amazon’s new drama, Hand of God, opens on a nude Ron Perlman cavorting in a fountain and speaking in tongues. Perlman plays Pernell Harris, a judge who’s recently undergone an off-screen conversion to fundamentalist Christianity, and who’s now on a quest to exact justice against the mysterious villains who (unrelatedly) assaulted his daughter-in-law and left his son in a coma. His new faith has also granted him elaborate visions, giving the show some bravura visual sequences to back up the violence that follows.

To hear all this described, it might sound like the show promises a simple premise and a wealth of action; unfortunately, it delivers neither.

But while Hand of God sounds frankly bonkers on paper, it suffers from the same self-seriousness and density of plot as this summer’s faulty season of True Detective, spoiling the work of a fine ensemble. In this early foray into TV drama, Amazon is making the same mistake a lot of other fledgling networks have made, picking a project with the kind of lurid, dark material you could never see on network TV. But Hand of God is badly overcooked, and its exploration of fundamentalist Christianity seems mostly a surface-level justification for the vigilante violence that ensues.

Perlman’s Harris is a hard-driving criminal judge who becomes a congregant in a radical church fronted by a handsome huckster, Paul Curtis (Julian Morris), after the brutal rape of his daughter-in-law (Alona Tal) leads his son PJ to attempt suicide, putting him in a coma. Harris is married to the no-nonsense Crystal (Dana Delany), is mixed up in a major land deal organized by the city’s mayor (Andre Royo), and believes his aforementioned visions will lead him toward finding his daughter-in-law’s attackers.

That quest is as close as Hand of God gets to a premise, focusing on Harris’s efforts to decipher his visions, with the help of a psychotic ex-con (Garret Dillahunt) whom he helped free from jail. As with so many pseudo-religious storylines on TV, it seems that Harris’s visions are somehow leading him on the right path, although he quickly begins to unravel a preposterous conspiracy that suggests the attackers in his son’s house that fateful night were part of a much larger, more evil organization.

Land deals, offscreen conspiracies, and a mystery that revolves around the rape of a woman? In a number of ways, Hand of God has notes of True Detective season two, but to its credit, it’s somewhat more comprehensible than the HBO show, and at least a little funnier. Perlman is an incredibly charming actor no matter how hokey his material, and he always rises to the occasion of a starring role, holding focus as he did in Sons of Anarchy and the Hellboy film series. Delany is similarly magnetic, but has much less purpose in the main plot and so often feels like superfluous baggage. Dillahunt is the kind of character actor who’s impossible to waste, as evidenced by his eclectic work over the years in shows like Deadwood, Raising Hope, and The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and he’s indisputably compelling as a stabby religious maniac bent on doing God’s (and Harris’s) will.

Still, the show is almost relentlessly grim. There’s a much more entertaining but less intensely violent show buried in Hand of God somewhere. The idea of Ron Perlman as a grumpy old judge and Dana Delany as his steely wife reads like something NBC would have greenlit in 1992, and a handful of brief scenes of Perlman behind the bench have some old-school crackle to them. But Amazon seems to be embracing the intense serialization of Netflix and other streaming services, unfolding Hand of God’s first season as one novel-sized story that inches infuriatingly towards its conclusion.

There’s some satisfaction in carrying Hand of God to the end of its 10 episodes, of course, since the ultimate conspiracy is revealed and the legitimacy of Harris’s religious conviction is, to some extent, answered. But the show’s writer, Ben Watkins, doesn’t place his conversion, nor the violence enacted, under nearly enough scrutiny. Hand of God mistakes grim violence for compelling drama, and in doing so fails to delve into much more fascinating material that exists on the margins. Neither can it take advantage of its talented cast to have them do much more than rant and growl at the bleak world they’ve found themselves in. That alone isn’t enough to justify 10 depressing hours of television.