SDCC 2015: Pushing Boundaries with Amazon Studios and Hand of God

Amazon is a company familiar with being on the forefront of societal shifts. They revolutionized the way we shop and now, with their crowd-sourced feedback and open submission process, Amazon Studios is changing the way that we create and watch television. As a result, they are making big waves with shows like the award-winning Transparent and the forthcoming Hand of God starring Ron Perlman. At San Diego’s Comic Com Hand of God panel, we learned more about the show and the unique way in which Amazon Studios has injected a new creativity and excitement into the TV making and viewing process.

The concept for Hand of God is, on paper, a bit of a risk. The show revolves around a power hungry narcissist and judge who, after suffering a family crisis, is convinced he receives messages from God compelling him to seek justice. Touched by An Angel this is not as the “honorable” Judge Pernell Harris reacts, or perhaps overreacts, to these messages to very destructive and often violent ends, further tearing his family apart on his singular mission to uncover the person responsible for his comatose son’s failed suicide attempt.

The Hand of God pilot was released to the public almost a year ago and viewer feedback was used to determine if the show would be made into a series. This allowed the execs to better gauge how well a series would do before making a huge financial commitment and afforded show creator/writer Ben Watkins (Burn Notice) a sort of go big or go home attitude for developing the show and shooting the pilot. This attitude not only attracted big stars like Ron Perlman but also was able to snag a big director, Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Quantum of Solace). Watson didn’t even have to pitch the project to either of them.

Delving a bit deeper into Amazon’s involvement in the production, Watkins claimed that “all they cared about was the story” and their level of support was very refreshing. Watkins was allowed to shoot on film not just for the pilot, but for the whole series. Perhaps the biggest boon was that Amazon was not only okay with the show being controversial, but they kept wanting more.  This “more” is particularly evident in a powerful scene in the pilot when Perlman’s Judge Harris uncomfortably forces his daughter-in-law (played by Supernatural’s Alona Tal) to look at a man he suspects, due to a sign from God, might have raped her. The scene increases in tension, discomfort, and abuse until the judge physically forces the daughter-in-law to watch as the man in question is forced to drop his pants (a relatively easy punishment compared to what happens later in the hour).

One of the more obvious controversial topics this show tackles is religion. Watkins said the show doesn’t take a pro or anti religion stance, but tries to give fodder for both sides. Beyond that, religion/faith/belief is just one of many issues the show touches upon.  The true focus is something more universal, the feeling of grief and how people deal with it. Religion is just a backdrop. Watkins explained that for Hand of God “religion is similar to science in Breaking Bad.”

One thing that was made very clear on the Hand of God panel was that the cast was very excited to be a part of this show. Julian Morris said his con man turned actor turned preacher character is the “most exciting character [he’s] ever played”.  On why Perlman wanted to return to TV he claimed, “right now, TV is the most exciting place to be”. He praised Amazon and their “pushing, prodding, and unapologetic” programming and could not stop talking about how thrilled he was about the originality and creativity involved in Hand of God.

Although Hand of God is not big network TV, it does have a few big names, a lot of passion, and full support from Amazon Studios behind it. It will be interesting to see how it fares come the fall when the full first season will be released on Amazon Prime. In pushing the boundaries of how TV is created and released and offering a slew of original and provocative programming, Amazon and it’s new show Hand of God might be a glimpse at how TV is done in the future.