Twice a year in Los Angeles, the Television Critics Association holds an industry press tour where studios bring out the stars and EPs of their new series for two weeks of panel Q&As. It serves a variety of functions, but foremost among them is to help us overworked professional TV watchers decide what we should cover for the upcoming season. It’s a strange affair, as eager creators and actors look out onto a sea of glowing Apple laptop logos behind which TV journalists take notes and Tweet and try to ascertain what is worth our (and your) time. After awhile, you start to get a sense of which casts are genuinely interested in their projects and which are genuinely not, and of shows that seem to have something new and interesting to offer versus ones with riddled with problems. Then there was Perpetual Grace, LTD.
A “where is it on the dial?” cable network like Epix has to work twice as hard to get the room to pay attention, because all of us in there know that traffic drives our sites and so, practically speaking, time is best spent on series that have big stars or might become big hits, or at the very least that will have a lot of people watching. But the panel for Perpetual Grace, back in January of this year, did make some of us sit up and take notice. It started off a little rocky; the trailer was hard to follow in terms of what the series was even about. The panel didn’t explain much about it either, but we critics joked that they all seemed so fully enthralled over the work and complimentary of creator Steven Conrad (who is also behind the Amazon series Patriot) that it felt cult-like. It was at the very least unusual. And that, sometimes, is all it takes to pique a critic’s interest.
Despite that fitful introduction, Perpetual Grace had plenty going for it, starting with its exceptional cast (Jimmi Simpson, Ben Kingsley, Jackie Weaver, Terry O’Quinn). But what made them so in love with the series to essentially convey a kind of spiritual transformation while filming? Those of us who have made our way through the season finale may now be able to say we understand it now a little bit.
I wrote about this Wes Anderson-by-way-of-the-Coen Brothers series earlier in its run, praising its strangeness and artistry and compellingly offbeat storytelling. And while there is a part of me that felt like its final two episodes drifted a little too far into languid monologuing and overwrought camerawork, the final scene (which I’ll get to in a moment) was also utterly perfect. You’ve never heard “hey…!” like Jimmi Simpson saying it, and then you’ll never forget it.
Before I get into spoilers, a few more general notes for those curious about the series: it really is impossible to describe. It’s beautifully written, acted, shot, felt. It’s an experience more than a passive act. The dialogue is lyrical, but even if I were to quote so many of its deeply, quietly funny lines they wouldn’t translate here. The score (composed largely by Conrad) and the performances elevate everything. And there is, beneath an extraordinarily thick layer of quirkiness, a true emotional core shared particularly by there men who have all, at one point or another in the series, taken on the identity of Paul Allen Brown.
Then there’s the delight of its theme song “Comet; which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the show until it absolutely and fully does.
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By the end of Perpetual Grace, LTD, it became clear that death was the link among all of these disparate stories, but most particularly in the case of James, Paul, and New Leaf. All three men were seeking redemption from deaths they felt they caused, or did cause, or had some unfinished business about. And still, few shows could pull off such a triumphant moment from the three elevating each other with “‘Secret benefactor.’ ‘Little Tornado.’ ‘Mr. Success.’” before running over the staged corpses of New Leaf’s parents (standing in for Ma and Pa) with a semi from the auto dealership. And do so earnestly. Truly, what other show?
That moment was but one of the many, many twists and turns that Paul’s scheme to rob his parents took over the course of this first season. It traveled so far from the initial idea of a con man taking advantage of two grifters (which, we never really got a sense of their church itself or their work with it), and ended up being an unexpected tale of redemption, not only for those three men but even for Glenn and his father. And bittersweetly, for Hector as well. Every character’s past sins paid a call in the end, although Hector was the only one whose story appears firmly concluded. But with Donny, Wesley, and James’ astronaut father sitting in the crowd at Ma and Pa’s fake funeral, it’s clear that James still has so much to contend with and answer for.
Not enough can possibly be said of Jimmi Simpson this season, as he brought such an immense amount of life and pathos and humor to the series. During the TCA panel, Simpson seemed perhaps the most transformed by the experience of filming, and it’s easy now to see why. His connection to the material and the character was nothing short of haunting. Though Ben Kingsley’s bizarre, hilarious, and frightening portrayal of Pa contained multitudes—and their connection through Paul’s scheme was a tense shadow over the season—Simpson grounded what could have sometimes been a cartoonish story with incredible humanity.
The same, though, can and should be said for Damon Herriman (who will forever be Justified’s Dewey Crowe in my mind) and the brilliantly understated, earnest humor of Chris Conrad. There is a level of commitment here from these three men to this wonderful strangeness that, once they came together onscreen, overwhelmed the series with heart. And that is, all things considered, the most unexpected turn of all.
There are a few things that didn’t work as well and that felt a little shoehorned in at the end, like Scotty, the last scenes with Felipe, and Lonnie as the deacon who we never really got to know besides a few references to his repressed homosexuality. Val never fully gelled as a character, and ultimately Lillian felt like she didn’t get as much badass time as she was perhaps owed. Which is to say overall that yes, the female characters weren’t always as strongly written as their male counterparts. Although some kudos is owed for the brief and tragic story of Theresa, whose enthusiasm and determination and naivety made that final, silent moment in “fiveever” one of the most excruciating I’ve ever sat through. (Also of note, the series actually found a way to cleverly and meaningfully incorporate a regular child character into the story with Dash Williams’ Glenn).
“A Sheriff in the Era of the Cartel” concludes with what feels like a presumption that show will get another season, and I certainly hope it does. If not, the funeral scene where everyone in this twisted tale has finally gathered together, and James must face his dual identities, is too full of promise to serve as a satisfying series finale. Chekov’s Donny never went off, for one thing, and Ma and Pa racing back from Mexico is a chaotic tornado with a very specific destination. But the real crux was James, with his slow realization of who was in that audience, visibly calculating his options and calibrating his performance to perform a true magic trick. “Hey…!” There we go, get it. Get the rhythm, get the rhythm, there we go, there we fucking go…
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV