By Jai Tiggett | Shadow and Act August 27, 2014 at 6:51PM
Premiering on August 28, Amazon Studios pilot "Hand of God" follows Judge Pernell Harris, a hard-living, law-bending married man with a high-end call girl on the side, who suffers a mental breakdown and goes on a vigilante quest to find the rapist who tore his family apart. With no real evidence to go on, Pernell begins to rely on visions and messages he believes are being sent by God through his ventilator-bound son.
Written and created by Ben Watkins ("Burn Notice"), the project marks the television debut of director Marc Forster ("Monster’s Ball, "World War Z"), and stars Ron Perlman as Judge Pernell; Dana Delany as Pernell's wife Crystal Harris; Andre Royo as the slick, smart, gregarious, and greedy mayor Robert "Bobo" Boston; and Emayatzy Corinealdi as Tessie, Pernell’s high-end call girl and confidante.
As the project nears its Amazon premiere, executive producer Ben Watkins made time to talk with Shadow And Act about creating the show and what audiences should expect to see.
JAI TIGGETT: Spirituality and religion can be controversial topics, especially for TV. Did you have any pushback or hesitation about tackling it in the show?
BEN WATKINS: I did. When we went out to pitch it, people would be frightened to death about the idea of a show with the word "God" in the title, and I actually got approached about changing the title and I said no. Even as a writer I hesitated a little bit to go down that road, knowing that it would scare a lot of people. But when I decided to write it I felt like, "I have to write this, and even if I don't ever make it I'll never regret writing it."
And then I just pushed forward. Every time my rational self would say, "You should pull back a little bit on that," I just had to remember what the purpose was and try to do what scared me.
And so you have a show where the main character thinks that God is talking to him and another main character is a preacher, but the show itself is not actually about religion. One of the reasons that I make religion prominent in the show is because it's one part of our society that is full of hypocrisy. Some people who say they believe in God don't necessarily act that way, and then some people who don't believe in God have a sense that there's something unexplained out there but they're not trying to explore that.
JT: How did you come up with the concept for the series?
BW: It was a collection of a lot of different ideas that have been bouncing around in my head for a while. One of the themes was zealotry. It has always fascinated me - whether it was John Brown or Nat Turner, who were zealots about ending slavery - people who were able to do miraculous things because they were so singularly obsessed with something, and how that obsession affects the people around them. They of course thought that they were inspired by God, and everyone else thought they were crazy. But there's no doubt that they were operating on another level.
The other theme I'm really interested in is how ambivalent we are as a society about what's going on around us. I think we've done a great job of making our lives incredibly convenient, and so even when we say we care about something we don't really have to change our lives because of that. We'll write a check to fight global warming but we won't sell our cars. We'll do just enough so that we can sleep at night. So I wanted to shine a light on that with a character that goes from the kind of person who doesn't really care about anything to someone who cares about one thing so much that they'll do anything for it.
JT: The idea of corrupt judges and vigilante justice sounds relevant to a lot of what's happening in society now. With "Hand of God," do you plan to tackle any real cases, or fictional versions of real cases? The Law & Order example comes to mind.
BW: I feel like the show will give me an opportunity to touch on a lot of hot button issues. For me a lot of the topics are conflicting, where we wish that there were just black-and-white answers, but really a lot of times the answer is gray. Ferguson is a great example, where there's so much gray there but we want it to be black-and-white; that Michael Brown could have been good and bad at the same time, but no matter what happened before he was shot, you can't tell me that he deserved to die.
Even looters - you can make the case that looters deserve to loot. You can make the case that these protests aren't only about Michael Brown, but about the legacy of institutionalized racism and how it has oppressed the black community. A lot of people want it to be only about Michael Brown, and that makes it much easier to land on one side or the other.
JT: Were you inspired by any real events as you were researching and writing the script?
BW: There weren't specific cases, but one of the ideas is these really popular preachers with huge mega-churches, and then they'll have a fall from grace. You could say that person was always a liar and a hypocrite, but just the day before you were following the person devoutly. And for me, the truth is that person is good and bad at the same time. Ted Haggard, the preacher who ended up having an affair with a gay prostitute - when you find out this thing about him, do you throw everything out the window? Does he just become that preacher who's been lying all this time, or is he still the guy that his followers felt was great? To me it's a fascinating question.
Instead of accepting a more complicated reality, we usually want to make it a yes or no answer. One of my favorite characters is the one that Emayatzy plays. She's a high-end call girl and if you take that at face value, there's all kinds of judgments that you can make. But in the pilot she's the only character who does not lie, and over the course of the series the intention is to showcase her in a way that completely upends our preconceived notions.