Synecdoche, New York
If we don't "go to the movies" in any form, our minds wither and sicken.
The incredible vastness of the modern TV landscape has led to quality programming going under-promoted to the point that shows can sneak up on people or, worse, slide far enough under the national radar that they go largely undiscovered. Raise your hand if you knew there was a new noir series starting Sunday that stars an Oscar winner, an Oscar nominee, and former players from “Westworld” and “LOST.” The problem is that the network EPIX isn’t exactly on everyone’s must-watch list for TV channels, but one would hope that “Perpetual Grace, LTD” changes that instantly. This is fantastic television, reminiscent of classic noirs and the way the Coen brothers played with the genre in works like “Blood Simple” and “Fargo.” Created by Bruce Terris and Steven Conrad (“The Weatherman,” Amazon’s “Patriot”), the only truly negative thing I can say about “Perpetual Grace, LTD” is that I was annoyed I only had two episodes to watch.
Jimmi Simpson plays James, a disgraced and depressed firefighter who gets caught up in a con that goes horrendously awry. He meets a guy in a bar named Paul Allen Brown (Damon Herriman), who regales him with stories about how generally awful his parents are. Pastor Byron (Sir Ben Kingsley) and Lillian Brown (Jackie Weaver) run one of those churches that steals from its flock more than it protects them, at least according to son Paul. The plan is to have James infiltrate their lives, and then pretend to be their son after they disappear (mostly so Paul doesn't get his hands dirty). The idea is that Byron and Lillian will be kidnapped by Mexicans—the great Luis Guzman leads that part of the plan—and held captive, presumed dead back in New Mexico. Death certificates will be forged, James will collect on the life insurance, and everyone runs off with their new-found fortunes. Let’s just say that people are underestimating Byron Brown. And Paul has a few secrets himself that he’s sharing, ones that bring the great Terry O’Quinn into the picture as a Texas Ranger named Tom Walker (no, he’s never heard of the Chuck Norris show).
“You should have told me that this old guy is not just an old guy.” Like most great noirs, “Perpetual Grace, LTD” is about false expectations. The old guy pastor will be easy to con, right? Kingsley imbues Pastor Brown with a slight tinge of menace from the very beginning, and then he’s relatively quickly allowed to unleash it, reminding one of his brilliant performance from “Sexy Beast.” He’s mesmerizing in a way we don’t often see on TV anymore. He’s balanced tonally by great work from Simpson, who really would have been a star in the era of film noir. Simpson is perfectly cast as a put-upon, guilt-ridden soul who tries to dig himself out of life’s hole but only goes deeper. Herriman, Weaver, Guzman, O’Quinn—the entire ensemble gets what Conrad is going for here and works together to accomplish it.
It helps that they’ve been given one of the most razor-sharp season premiere screenplays of the year. Conrad’s writing, especially on “Patriot,” can sometimes feel a little too self-aware, but he finds just the right balance between character and showmanship in these two episodes, producing scenes that are very funny and blending with the program’s darker tonal elements. Conrad is willing to take his time—there’s an amazing unbroken shot that details how desperately Guzman’s character needs to escape his awful home life—but the show never feels slack in its pacing or bloated in its storytelling. It’s tight and yet also able to go off on character tangents. And the dialogue is witty and hysterical.
There are so many TV options in 2019 that a show like this snuck up even on me, and I cover TV for a living. Of course, it’s great that we have so many options, but I worry that overcrowding can lead to great programming failing to be heard over all the noise out there. You really should find a way to hear “Perpetual Grace, LTD.” You won’t regret it.
Two episodes screened for review.
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