Sometimes great television shows—particularly those that are just a little ahead of their time—need our help. In 1968, when Star Trek appeared to be on the verge of cancellation, a sci-fi-crazed couple named Bjo and John Trimble organized a then-unprecedented letter-writing campaign that convinced NBC to bring Kirk and Spock back for a third and final season. In 2000, fans of the teenage-alien soap opera Roswell, fearing their show was about to end, sent thousands of bottles of Tabasco sauce to the WB network, which helped stave off its demise. (The show’s protagonist was a Tabasco fiend.) Eight years later, the imperiled, low-rated, much-beloved show was Friday Night Lights, and fans banded together with even more ingenuity than the Trekkies and Roswell lovers had, mailing in light bulbs, eye drops (“clear eyes, full hearts…”), and mini-footballs to express their devotion. FNL ran for three more seasons.
Over the past two weeks, fans have been rallying around another show that appears to be on the brink of death: Sundance TV’s East Texas–set Hap and Leonard. The series—a rural noir about a middle-aged crime-fighting odd couple and their battles against murderous preachers, the Ku Klux Klan, and all manner of corrupt and semi-corrupt lawmen—completed its third season on April 11, and despite strong ratings, it has yet to be renewed for a fourth. “A lot of people are nervous about whether it will happen or not,” Joe R. Lansdale, a co-executive producer and the author of the novels upon which the show is based, told me. Lansdale had an idea to try to help Sundance make up its mind. “All of these fans who were writing me or were on my Twitter or my Facebook who were just absolutely fanatic, I wanted them to express how they felt about the show to Sundance,” Lansdale said. So he took to the internet to try to help the network and its executives see just what they’d built.
HAP AND LEONARD FANS. Help us be renewed. We have no idea what SUNDANCE wants to do, but we would like them to know what we would like them to do. Write then directly and tell them you need your HAP AND LEONARD. NOW!
— Joe Lansdale (@joelansdale) April 16, 2018
Other members of the cast and crew followed suit, and fans and critics have responded with paeans to the show. Among the faithful, there is a sense that Hap and Leonard isn’t just worth bringing back because it’s beautifully acted and fun to watch and full of crackerjack action sequences, but because it has something important to say. As Jonita Davis of the website Black Girl Nerds wrote in an article calling for Hap and Leonard’s renewal, the third season was “the show that we all needed right now. It let us vent and rage against the racist, unjust, and downright surreal reality that America has become since 2016.”
Critics and fans had long recognized that Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard tales were serving up something a little deeper than pulp. The narrator of the series was Hap Collins, a Lansdale alter-ego who was white, straight, and a laid-back lefty peacenik who had spent two years in federal prison because he both refused to serve in the Vietnam War and refused to register as a conscientious objector. (He felt some wars were justified.) Leonard Pine, his best friend, was his categorical opposite. He was black, gay, conservative, a Vietnam combat veteran, and a live-wire always spoiling for a fight. The two men weren’t detectives exactly, but they were constantly on the hunt for something, and that hunt usually involved both gunplay and the exposure of some sordid crime rotting the foundation of East Texas. Reviewing Mucho Mojo, the second Hap and Leonard novel, for the New York Times Book Review in 1994, Winter’s Bone author Daniel Woodrell wrote that “Mr. Lansdale portrays scenes of interracial dating and sex, squalid crack houses, exquisite neighborliness and mounting horror with a folklorist’s eye for telling detail and a front-porch raconteur’s sense of pace.” In 2011, the writer and critic Steven L. Davis, reviewing the eighth Hap and Leonard novel, Devil Red, for this magazine, anointed Lansdale “the unabashed conscience of East Texas, drawing our attention to environmental despoliation, religious intolerance, corrupt cops, and, above all else, racial prejudice.”
This all sounded like great fodder for a television series, but when Hap and Leonard debuted two years ago, the show didn’t quite make good on its promise. Initial reviews in mainstream outlets like New York, Slate, and the New York Times delighted in the swampy East Texas atmosphere and lauded the performances of James Purefoy as Hap and Michael Kenneth Williams as Leonard, but critics found the show a little wanting. In the words of New York’s Matt Zoller Seitz, Hap and Leonard was “so beguiling and unusual that it’s hard not to become entranced by it,” but it suffered from being a “little too relaxed for its own good” and had “trouble reconciling its wit and sexiness with bursts of harrowing violence that feel imported from a Quentin Tarantino movie (or a film by one of Tarantino’s imitators).” Released in the middle of prestige television’s golden age, the show seemed safe to pat on the back and then dismiss.
Part of the problem was the source material. The show’s first season was adapted from Savage Season, Lansdale’s first Hap and Leonard book, and while it established what’s remarkable about the two protagonists, it isn’t quite a fully developed Hap and Leonard novel. The Lansdale who wrote Savage Season in the late 1980s had just made his name as a writer, largely for violent, surreal horror stories that had established him as a godfather of a movement that critics called “splatterpunk,” and Savage Season seems to have one foot in that world. Hap and Leonard are real, rough-around-the-edges characters, struggling to make ends meet as day laborers in the East Texas rose fields. (“Where’s your piece of the American pie, Leonard?” a self-righteous hippie asks in an early episode of Hap and Leonard. “I ate mine,” Leonard, always a quip ahead, snorts.) But the two friends find themselves battling two hyper-sexual psycho-killers named Soldier and Angel who seem beamed in from a grindhouse. Lansdale’s distinctive voice made these disparate parts work together on the page, but on screen, the genre mash-up proved harder to pull off.
What Lansdale fans knew, though, was that the Hap and Leonard books hit their stride with the second novel, Mucho Mojo, which centers on missing black boys in the fictional East Texas town of LaBorde, the police department’s failure to investigate the crimes, and the area’s history of violence. The second season of Hap and Leonard is still plenty weird—a dwarf hair-stylist, a backwoods voodoo mystic, and a bevy of circus performers try to assist our two heroes—but from the start, it feels bigger and more substantial. There are more characters, a far richer sense of place, and a steadily growing sense of menace.
The recently completed third season, based on Lansdale’s Two-Bear Mambo, expands on those themes. Hap and Leonard travel to the Klan-controlled enclave of Grovetown where they search for their friend and Hap’s one-time lover, a ravishingly beautiful (it’s still pulp fiction, after all) African-American lawyer named Florida Grange. Along the way, Hap and Leonard investigate the town’s dark secrets as much as the disappearance of their friend.
Most media outlets stopped covering Hap and Leonard after their initial reviews of the first season, but as the series progressed, writers at more niche entertainment websites like Collider, Den of Geek!, and Black Girl Nerds consistently championed the show. Before the beginning of the third season, Vox, one of the few general-interest publications to stay with Hap and Leonard, called it “one of TV’s best-kept secrets,” a sentiment that has been echoed elsewhere. Hap and Leonard has learned to juggle its many parts—the fights work as fights, the hallucinatory sequences are trippy, and the skewering of racists is fun not preachy, mostly because Leonard as played by Williams is so irresistible. And even though Hap and Leonard closely follows novels written more than two decades ago, was conceived of and premiered during Barack Obama’s presidency, and takes place in the late 1980s, the show has increasingly seemed tailor-made for the Donald Trump years, with its left-behind working-class protagonists, economically disadvantaged setting, and ever-present in-your-face racism.
Lansdale himself has been unsurprised the show has become so topical. “The Aryan Nation, the Klan, all these anti-immigrant groups—they’ve never really disappeared, and if you think they have, then you’ve been living in a bubble,” he says. “I was having a conversation with another producer and he said, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to make this Klan stuff seem relevant,’ and then the next day they had Charlottesville.”
Lansdale recently published his eleventh Hap and Leonard novel, Jackrabbit Smile, and he’s currently finishing his twelfth, so there’s no danger that the show will run out of material. If Sundance TV were to re-up Hap and Leonard, it could track the fourth book in the series, Bad Chili, in which Leonard is framed for a murder, or jump into more modern times, highlighting what has—and mostly hasn’t—changed in Hap and Leonard’s East Texas environs.
At its best, Lansdale’s work bewitches you with an idea common to all great noir: that behind the walls of every clapboard bungalow and beneath every grassy lawn there’s both a hidden rot and a hidden goodness, and we all need to look a little harder in order to see things as they really are. In its serpentine twists and profound sense of place, Hap and Leonard has begun to offer a tantalizing promise: that clear vision and bold action from a few brave men and women can unmask the hidden order of the world. If it gets a fourth season, there’s little doubt that our protagonists, Hap and Leonard, will confront more evils lurking just beneath the surface, and—at least for a few fleeting moments on-screen—show all of us that noble principles, a few well-timed wise-cracks, and a healthy dose of derring-do can save the day once again.