I've never read Joe Lansdale, but I decided last week to give the first episode of Hap and Leonard a try. I enjoyed it enough to stick with it, though the commercials Sundance loaded into the show were annoying. In the era of Netflix and streaming, who can tolerate commercials any more? Anyway, there was a small moment in the show that struck me and that, more than anything, persuaded me to give the series a chance.
Late at night after some drama he's gone through with his ex-wife Trudy and Howard, Trudy's current boyfriend, Hap goes out to a grocery store and picks up some beer. This is deep in rural East Texas, of course. He pulls over to the side of the rode, cracks open a beer, and starts to think about his childhood, a time one night he was in the passenger seat and his father was behind the wheel. It's raining hard, and the two pass a black man who's pulled over on the other side of the road. That guy has his front hood up and is trying to fix something on his own car. Hap's father laughs, saying something like, "Look at how wet that nigger is." Haha. No special nastiness in the comment, just run of the mill racism, a joke at the expense of the proverbial other, and the boy Hap seems neither upset nor amused. But a moment later, his father slows their vehicle down. There's a child in the backseat of that other car, his father says, and he starts to turn their vehicle around to give that black guy and his kid help.
That's the end of Hap's memory, and the episode continues from there. It's a brief moment, handled in a matter of fact way, but it's the kind of quick and off-handed scene involving race you rarely get in American television. Or in movies, for that matter. Too often, if race is involved, we get a whole drama constructed around a racial issue or, within a drama, something made heated or one dimensional for emphasis. Right now in movie theaters, the story of Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics is playing, and could they have given the film a more obvious title than Race? Or, on TV, you get shows like ABC's American Crime. I watched that last year, all of Season 1. It wasn't the worst show in the world (I haven't watched Season 2 this year), but it wears quickly because it errs on the side of didacticism. Hap and Leonard, by contrast, at least so far, takes precisely the opposite approach, and the scene with Hap remembering the night his father stopped to help a black guy, who he just called a nigger and laughed at, is exactly the kind of scene I love to see in a TV show or movie. It's a small moment that without hitting you with a hammer captures a lot. Lo and behold, things aren't so simple. But the scene's very casualness comes as a little bomb to the viewer. Since we know Hap's best friend in the world is a black man, and a gay black man at that, we can connect whatever dots we need to make the jump from that brief glimpse into Hap's past to Hap's present. Which is not to say we won't see more of Hap's past. I expect we might. But as I said, I haven't read the books so I don't know.
In any event, if Hap and Leonard continues to take this laid back approach to complexity, I'm gonna like it.