Depending on your cable package, somewhere on your dial you should find Epix, a movie channel that has, as part of the Peak TV, also pushed into original scripted programming. It’s found some moderate success in series like Get Shorty, although experiments with more overtly “prestige” television (Graves, Berlin Station) have struggled to get noticed. Epix has always brought great talent to its series—Chris O’Dowd, Richard Armitage, Walton Goggins, Nick Nolte—but their series haven’t always proved themselves to be essential viewing. At least, essential enough to convince overwhelmed viewers to hunt around to find it while facing a deluge of other television.
But then comes Perpetual Grace, LTD, a fascinating series with another outstanding cast that is seemingly built for cult-status appreciation. Creators Steve Conrad and Bruce Terris have crafted a visually distinct world full of moral quandaries, exploring the fluctuating nature of what defines a person’s character. That exists alongside scenes like Sir Ben Kingsley calmly telling the guard at a Mexican prison that he is “the pale horse of death,” just before being loaded into an ice cream truck for transportation to a Super Max facility.
Perpetual Grace is the kind of series where an episode name can appear to just be a random assortment of words, like its second hour, “Orphan Comb Death Fight,” when in fact it’s an event to be explained. The series builds out its own world in a vaguely modern southwest setting, where James (Jimmi Simpson) gets embroiled in a scheme to rob a couple running a scam church. Their son, Paul Allen Brown (Damon Herriman), repeats several times that “they’re just two old people,” but Byron (Kingsley) and Lillian (Jacki Weaver) are forces to be reckoned with—starting with the fact that James has to get hooked on methadone first to go through their detox as part of the heist. “That’s intense,” he says thoughtfully.
Perpetual Grace has a weird, wry humor to it, but even more importantly it’s rooted in exceptional character work. James is targeted by Paul to steal his identity and lure his parents to Mexico for the robbery because he’s become lost wanderer (one who is tangentially responsible for the death of a former colleague). But this is all part of James working through his penance, and as such appears to find some kind of genuine connection with “Ma” and “Pa” as the Browns are called. (Like good conmen, their lies are half-truths, and it’s nearly impossible to tell when they occur). As he works through the specifics of would-be heist (of the $4 million estate the Browns control), he doesn’t relish a single moment of it. He’s a likable guy ultimately, and yet, he does bad things. He wrestles with that duality often in strangely funny ways, like in several scenes where he chats with (and ultimately robs) the 15-year-old running a pawn shop while his father is at an AA meeting. James returns later to check in on the boy, and they strike up an odd kind of friendship, both talking around—aware, but never addressing—the fact that James robbed and bludgeoned him, causing lasting damage. (Although the series includes violence, it’s almost never shown).
There are hints of other series within this one, from Fargo and Justified to Carnivàle, and a little of True Detective Season 1. The show is mediative and unhurried, but its scenes are short enough to keep the story briskly moving along. Even when it allows its characters to have long conversations across intersections (as is the case with James and a victim of the Browns’ money-swindling ways), the cuts back and forth between the conversationalists (both close up and far away) keep the interactions kinetic. And then there’s the great humor of the conversation being about why there’s not a Lens Crafters in town anymore; it plays as a random comment to James, but viewers have been made privy to the history leading up to it, creating a quick, engaging setup to what becomes both a funny and heartbreaking reference.
Conrad, who also directs the first episodes, seems to film everything at Golden Hour, augmenting the dusty landscape with brilliant sunsets and expansive southwestern skies. In that way it also evokes Breaking Bad’s distinct style—a series that also notably knew how to root narrative plot tension in character work, and which wore a Prestige TV badge though never allowed itself to become too mired in its own darkness. It’s early days yet with Perpetual Grace, but there is just enough lightness and humor and a strange hopefulness in the series to think it might also get this balance right.
Though Simpson’s James is the heart of the series thus far, Kingsley and Weaver have laid tantalizing groundwork for where their characters may go next. Harriman’s wannabe magician-turned-con artist is also a devilishly fascinating figure. But that’s true of everyone we meet in Perpetual Grace, which has proved itself to be a deeply layered story. It intricately weaves its disparate plots together and constantly adds in new elements and hints about the true nature of its characters. It’s a fascinating journey to begin, with no sense yet of how things might resolve, if they ever do. There’s no hurry to get there, though—spending time in this strange world is full of curiosities will likely keep us perpetually sustained.
Perpetual Grace, LTD airs Sunday nights on Epix.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat, and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV