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‘Parish’ Review: Giancarlo Esposito Is the Only Reason to Check Out AMC’s Derivative Crime Drama

Peak TV may have peaked, but there’s still enough overwhelming volume on the small screen that I was able to watch AMC’s Parish while pondering a very niche-y question: Was this the best American cable adaptation of a far more efficient British drama about a guilt-stricken father, played by a star of Breaking Bad, leaving a life of comfortable legitimacy to wallow in a New Orleans criminal underbelly overseen by a member of the cast of Steven Spielberg’s The Post?

For what it’s worth, I think I preferred Showtime’s Your Honor, but I don’t want to make it sound like this new six-part thriller is derivative of only one specific show when it’s actually derivative of an entire fourth or fifth wave of already derivative prestige dramas — in AMC terms, more Low Winter Sun than The Killing, much less Breaking Bad.

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While it’s possible to acknowledge small attempts from the Parish creative team to give their series the occasional distinctive element, there’s finally only one reason to sit through this choppy, excessively familiar six-parter: After building a deservedly successful brand of smooth and simmering intensity, Giancarlo Esposito gets to, at age 65, become an emotionally volcanic leading man.

There is some awesomeness in watching Esposito tear into this opportunity — he bellows, he bawls, he kicks butt — but the rest of the show offers less awe and more yawn.

Esposito plays Gracián Parish, whom nearly everybody calls “Gray,” even though if I knew anybody named “Gracián,” that’s all I’d call them. (That nobody within the show acknowledges that Gray’s last name is a regional districting pun that opens the door for my Paris-set drama focused on private investigator Jacques Arrondissement, who puts the pain in pain au chocolat.)

Gray runs a luxury car service out of New Orleans, but business is bad, what with rideshare companies, New Orleans’ economy and the fact that Gray is still deeply grieving his son (Caleb Baumann’s Maddox), who was shot and killed under mysterious circumstances eight months earlier. Gray is too preoccupied to notice that his wife, Rose (Paula Malcomson), and daughter, Mac (Arica Himmel), are still hurting as well and might be hankering to leave the city behind.

Did I mention that before he owned a struggling car service, Gray was a midlevel criminal with a particular gift for stealing and and escaping with high-end automobiles? Well, he was! And just when he thought he’d been out for 18 years, they pull him back in. Colin (Skeet Ulrich), a member of Gray’s old crew who spent over a decade in prison because he refused to name names, is in a lot of trouble with a local human trafficking syndicate run by the Tongais — Zackary Momoh’s The Horse, volatile brother Zenzo (Ivan Mbakop) and sensible sister Shamiso (Bonnie Mbuli) — Zimbabwean refugees hungry for a piece of the American Dream.

Colin needs Gray’s particular set of skills to get him out of a scrape, but once Gray proves his usefulness, remaining on the straight-and-narrow becomes impossible — especially when local kingmaker Anton (Bradley Whitford), another human trafficker and another former Gray cohort, steps back into the picture.

Parish begins, as such shows usually do, in medias res, with a truly great car chase through the tight streets of New Orleans, where you never know when a wrong turn might lead you into a jazz parade. (You know eventually it will happen, just as surely as you know that a different pursuit will eventually take place in an above-ground cemetery, because this is N’awlins, baby!)

It’s the best action scene in the show. It’s maybe the only memorable action scene in the show. Credit, I guess, to Sunu Gonera, who co-created the show (with Danny Brocklehurst) and directed the first two episodes, for the bait-and-switch. But not too much credit, since Gonera was removed from the show under unpleasant circumstances and is being heavily underplayed in AMC promotion for … wholly logical reasons.

So Parish, adapted very loosely from the British format The Driver, starts with a bang and doesn’t exactly whimper from there — there’s at least one very good shootout, which includes the aforementioned cemetery chase — but it definitely becomes more of a by-the-numbers moral-quandary suspense piece. It’s full of extended sequences that you’ve seen done better countless times — body disposal, heavily telegraphed double-crosses, etc. — set against a Big Easy backdrop that has, however gorgeously photographed, become much less distinctive than it used to be before tax breaks made New Orleans a production hub. A key scene set at an abandoned amusement park — I believe the old Six Flags New Orleans — was the one time I thought, “OK, that’s different and cool and worthwhile.”

Was Parish written by people with only a casual tourist’s understanding of New Orleans, or was it written for audiences with only a casual tourist’s interest in New Orleans? And does the distinction matter? The series is packed with the most basic and overplayed of New Orleans references — I’m 90 percent sure a nod to AA meetings serving day-old beignets was a joke, but who could tell? — with troweled-on accents to match.

The use of the Tongais as adversaries is a rare point of specificity, offering a backstory that includes snippets of native language and ties to uprisings against Mugabe and some points of immigration-based depth. It helps that the effectively conflicted Momoh, the sternly calculating Mbuli and the properly unhinged Mbakop are all very good.

It doesn’t help that most of their dialogue is from a crime drama cliché handbook, or that the series lets plot mechanics supersede nuance at every turn. I’d run out of interest in Parish by the fourth episode, but then the fifth episode — directed by Ernest Dickerson — piqued some curiosity by introducing a lot of new elements in a hurry. Then the sixth episode fell completely flat, relying on one ridiculously laughable coincidence and a lot of heavy-handed seeding for a wishful second season.

Esposito would be the reason to watch the second season, just as he is the first. His character presents with the sort of slick professionalism that would do Gus Fring proud — he doesn’t get into a car chase without tugging on his leather driving gloves — but as Gracián unravels, Esposito shows the cracks in that exterior and then falls apart completely and impressively. He’s equally good parrying with steely precision with the Tongais and unloading on his old pal Colin (an amusingly messy Ulrich). He’s less well utilized in the domestic scenes, and there were multiple times I thought Parish had forgotten about Rose and Mac entirely, which never bothered me.

I’d say maybe you could wait and see if Parish finds a different gear and a more refined voice in its second season, especially given the creative upheaval that took place in the first. But what’s the urgency? This is Esposito’s second heavily accented, stylish crime show in the past month. There just isn’t enough else to set Parish apart.

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