The conventional Hollywood wisdom has been never to work with children or animals. Lately, you could add God to that mix.
Religion, spirituality, and faith are issues so polarizing that unless someone’s being touched by an angel, networks tend to steer clear. A TV graveyard ravaged with fire and brimstone is overpopulated with shows that have attempted to fictionalize or, worse, provoke when it comes to matters of religion.
There’s always one part of the population that feels mocked or judged for their beliefs. There’s another that might feel preached to or propagandized. And in the world of TV, the cardinal sin is alienating potential viewers.
There are outlying examples, of course. Touched By an Angel was a sepia-toned, feel-good hit for nearly a decade on CBS, buoyed by the holy brogue of Roma Downey, who also produced the highly rated miniseries The Bible in 2013. (Tellingly, The Bible “sequel,” A.D.: The Bible Continues, suffered less-than-holy ratings.)
But Amazon’s new drama, Hand of God? “If you’re tuning in to Hand of God and looking for an edgier version of Touched By an Angel, you’re going to be disappointed,” says Ben Watkins, who created the show. “If you’re tuning in thinking this is going to be a statement about how God doesn’t exist, you’re going to be disappointed, too.”
Joining Watkins on Hand of God is Marc Foster, the director behind films like World War Z and Monster’s Ball, making his first foray into television. The holy rollers count Ron Perlman and Dana Delany among their disciples and the show hopes to put Amazon on the map in the world of one-hour dramas, the same way the streaming service has already made its mark in comedy with Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle, and the recent critical darling rom-com Catastrophe.
“We weren’t looking to make a show that’s safe,” Foster says. “We want to push buttons and have reactions. That’s the whole point.”
Suffice it to say, there will be reactions.
In the show, we meet a powerful judge named Pernell Harris, played by Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy, Hellboy), as he is in the throes of a religious rebirth, conceived from grief. His son, who was forced to watch his wife get raped repeatedly in front of him, is in a coma after trying to kill himself. Believing that God is speaking to him through his comatose son, Pernell goes on a vigilante tear for justice.
It’s at times quite unpleasant to watch but, as Hand of God’s creators say, purposefully so. One scene in particular, in which Pernell manhandles his daughter-in-law and makes her look at the penis of the man he thinks raped her, is particularly ghastly, especially since the violent steadfastness with which he condemns this man is, he says, directed by God.
Zealotry, extremism, and faith all interplay here, likely in ways that will ruffle a few feathers. Pernell’s wife, Crystal (played by a steely Dana Delany), is chief among the skeptics of Pernell’s religious awakening. The more signs from God—which become increasingly violent in nature—Pernell says he sees, the crazier the people in his life think he is. Even the pastor Pernell invests his time and buckets of money in seems to be a crooked scammer.
The sensitive nature of the show is high on the mind of its stars.
“As we went to sell the show, before it got picked up from Amazon, we became more and more aware of how trepidatious programmers were to deal with a show that had the word ‘God’ in the title,” Perlman says. “But the thing that the pilot does so brilliantly is [showing that] the way everyone engages in the God discussion kind of mirrors how personal everybody’s relationship with faith is. It’s like a fingerprint. No two people do it in the same way.”
Perlman and Delany had run in the same circles since the late ’80s, when she was starring on China Beach and he on the Beauty and the Beast television series. They ran into each other at awards shows but never actually worked together. Both come to Amazon—still a bit of the Wild West of television—from seasoned TV careers. In addition to China Beach, Delany starred in Desperate Housewives and Body of Proof, while Perlman just completed a seven-season run on FX’s Sons of Anarchy.
“When I started out nobody did TV,” Delany laughs, thinking about her journey to Amazon. “I had done three movies in a row and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m on my way. I’m going to be a movie actress.’” When the China Beach script came across her desk, Delany says she nearly passed on it. “I remember my agent saying—she literally said this—‘You’re a fucking idiot!’” After letting out another one of her addicting cackles, she continues. “The script was so good, and I was poo-pooing it because it was TV.”
Delany relished watching her peers catch on to the fact that television hosted an abundance of complex, satisfying roles, especially for women, whereas such a bounty was hard to come by in the world of film—to a point, that is. Eventually too many people, namely big-name movie stars, started catching on in droves.
“It’s been interesting, because obviously sometimes you lose out a role because they want a movie actress, which is the irony,” she says. “‘Wait a minute! I’ve been here all along.’”
Hand of God, owed to its no-rules home on Amazon, has offered Delany a playground for her “twistiness,” she says. She remembers one scene in the pilot, in particular, when she realized she wasn’t in Kansas—or at least working under network standards—anymore. Her character confronts a preacher whom she suspects of corruption and begins to blackmail him. On a whim, Delany decided she was going to grab him—literally—by the balls.
“I said to Ben when we were rehearsing, ‘It’s a crazy idea, but what do you think?’” she remembers. “He said, ‘Go for it!’ I said, ‘Wow, I get to do that?’ And he said, ‘Welcome to the Internet.’”
Perlman was coming off six years of Sons of Anarchy when he started talking with Watkins and Foster about Hand of God. After so many years spent in the dark recesses of a far less holy vigilante’s mind on the FX hit drama, he was understandably hesitant to sign on for another tortured role.
Not only would Perlman need to tap into the grief of a father whose son is in a coma, he would need to access a character who, motivated by cryptic signs from the Almighty, manipulates a former white supremacist—who has also found Jesus—to do his violent though apparently divine dirty work.
“When we were talking to him about playing the judge, one of the first things he said was that it scared the shit out of him,” Watkins remembered. “For Marc and I, that was the light bulb moment.”
Perlman jumped at the chance anyway. “I think I would have had trouble living with myself if I had pussied out,” he says. “The thing that scared me the most was the level of pain I’d have to authentically try to replicate. I knew this guy was in a world of hurt and very compromised emotionally and the pilot was probably just scratching the surface of where I was going to have to go.”
And as for the controversy that is almost sure to arise from the show’s religious themes, Perlman is nonplussed, saying that the show does more to “beg questions” about our relationship with religion than it does to provide any point of view on it.
Even Watkins and Foster maintain that the show—which sets its born-again protagonist on a murderous rampage ordered by God and facilitated by a crooked pastor—isn’t making a statement about religion.
“We’ve had people watch the pilot and someone will say ‘He’s definitely getting messages from God,’ and another person will say, ‘Oh, he’s skewering religion,’” Watkins says. “I love that. Whatever conclusions you draw are forcing you to admit that you might have your own agenda.”