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AMC Crime Drama Parish Doesn't Pick Up Speed Until It's Too Late

Giancarlo Esposito's got a fast car, but Parish doesn't have a plan to get us out of here.
  • Giancarlo Esposito in Parish (Photo: AMC)
    Giancarlo Esposito in Parish (Photo: AMC)

    Giancarlo Esposito has had many iconic roles — Buggin’ Out, Mike Giardello, El Presidente — but only one is associated with AMC: Breaking Bad drug kingpin Gus Fring. It’s tempting to bring up that show when talking about Parish, a new crime drama on the same network, but that would set expectations unfairly high. Adapted from the U.K. series The Driver by co-creator Danny Brocklehurst and Sunu Gonera (who directed at least one episode and co-wrote others before he was ousted following an internal investigation of “serious allegations”), the story has moved to AMC’s recent stomping grounds of New Orleans and extended itself from three episodes to six.

    More a spin on Drive with a touch of Collateral (in terms of occupation at least), Parish, stars Esposito as the titular Gracián "Gray" Parish, owner of a car service. Seen in the opening moments performing a panicked-yet-collected getaway drive, Parish is a man with a struggling business attempting to put his life of crime behind him to support his family. Among the other bits of backstory doled out in the pilot are a dead son (the circumstances of which are elaborated on later) and continual insinuations of bad acts being done in his past life.

    With all that setup, would it shock you to learn that an old partner (Skeet Ulrich, doing his best Nawlins accent) turns back up asking him to go on one last job? For some Zimbabwean gangsters to which he owes quite a bit of money? Of course it’s never just “one last job,” and it’s not long before Parish the Show and Parish the Guy find themselves getting pulled deeper and deeper into a battle between two crime syndicates (including one led by a miscast Bradley Whitford), forcing him to battle his way out to protect his family.

    If Parish has a big weakness, it’s the feeling of going through the motions of A Crime Drama About A Man With A Shady Past without really having much new to say about it or the characters themselves. The syndicate itself — run out of a restaurant, and lead by the Tongai siblings Shamiso (Bonnie Mbuli), Zenzo (Ivan Mbakop), and one only known as The Horse (Zackary Momo) — do provide some color to things if only for the novelty of an African gang. A couple of the actors’ accents are inconsistent, but the main problem is the lack of danger. Sure, the syndicate may threaten someone with gasoline and they’re in the business of exploiting people (specifically, bringing African migrants to work service jobs and then taking their passports), but they don’t register as enough of a threat to keep Gray from just throwing away the burner and returning to his life. Not to mention that we never see what Parish gets out of returning to his old ways, whether personally or monetarily.

    It doesn’t help that the final two episodes provide a jolt of narrative that only makes the middle hours feel like wheel spinning. While these episodes dazzle with twists and turns, as well as close off a major storyline involving the death of Gray’s teenage son, they make you wonder why this isn’t the show we’ve been watching all along. Maddox, the aforementioned teenage son, pops up throughout the season enough to prevent a drastic shift, but it does feel like a lot of setup for season 2, failing to earn the emotion it so clearly wants to inspire.

    Parish as a whole is pretty surface level. Those surfaces can be rather pretty; every episode features at least one or two shots or compositions that are genuinely rather inventive or breathtaking, and it uses color more than most Prestige TV has in recent years. That doesn’t mean it’s not immune to the Dark Scourge: scenes lit darkly, as if to suggest a bad side or shadowy undercurrent, but really just making it difficult to make out faces. At times the style can seem rather unmotivated, as when it cuts to some long shots with the subjects all the way in the back for no apparent purpose.

    Striking a view as the New Orleans landscape (also the setting for Interview With a Vampire) may be, its prominence starts to come across as compensation for a lack of novelty and depth; less charitably, Parish is not a show about New Orleans in the way that The Wire is about Baltimore. The latter especially rears its head whenever characters speak about colonization, or feeling trapped in their lives, or the exploitation of workers. Those themes may be mentioned but they’re never elaborated upon, and sometimes it’s like the showrunners are trying to argue for depth instead of being deep.

    Aside from the New Orleans backdrops, Esposito’s performance is the only thing to really recommend. He’s always been a commanding presence on the screen and here he’s never anything less than riveting. That implacable, eerie calm has been replaced with a cool-under-pressure demeanor just barely managing to keep back the raging tide of grief. The rest of the cast fares well aside from occasionally dodgy accents from the Tongai brothers. Bonnie Mbuli proves especially commanding in her steely resolve; watching her threaten a businessman or negotiating a deal is compelling, but there’s strangely not enough of it. And that may be the most puzzling thing about Parish as a whole: For a show all about crime, there’s little sense of danger to either Parish or the other characters until the final moments, as if someone suddenly realized they needed stakes.

    Parish somehow feels stretched out and too short at the same time. It’s just stylish enough to stand out in a sea of similar Netflix shows and it’s never boring, exactly. But time and time again the creators are content to idle along, paying lip service to various themes until it’s time to speed away. What makes it more frustrating is that by the time the series gets to what we ostensibly came for, it’s all over, without making an impact. It gets the job done well enough; but in the pantheon of AMC shows, it’s more Low Winter Sun than Breaking Bad.

    Parish premieres March 31 on AMC+ and AMC at 3:01 AM ET and 10:00 PM ET, respectively. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Devan Suber is a writer living in Philadelphia.

    TOPICS: Giancarlo Esposito, AMC, AMC+, Parish, Bradley Whitford, Prestige TV