Parish Review: Giancarlo Esposito Shines in an Otherwise Clunky Crime Drama

Having Esposito in the driver’s seat prevents the series from spinning out altogether.

Parish
Photo: AMC

The downside to playing a character like Gus Fring, Breaking Bad’s soft-spoken purveyor of fried chicken and crystal meth, is that once audiences have gotten a taste of it, that’s all they want from you. Even when he’s wielding a Darksaber or managing a stable of celebrity superheroes, many of Giancarlo Esposito’s subsequent roles have asked him to stick pretty closely to Fring’s politely psychotic shtick. As such, his grittier, growlier turn as retired wheelman Gracián “Gray” Parish in AMC’s crime drama Parish makes for a nice change of pace.

Gray seems like your average family man. He runs a car company and lives in a nice suburban home with his wife, Ros (Paula Malcomson), and their daughter, Makayla (Arica Himmel). They enjoy a peaceful life for the most part, though a shadow lingers over their home: Gray’s son, Maddox (Caleb Baumann), was killed a year ago in a shooting that remains unsolved.

“It still feels like it just happened,” Gray explains to Makayla after a family dinner in Maddox’s honor descends into a shouting match. Although his voice remains almost completely steady, the effort that requires is made plain by Esposito’s carefully calibrated performance. You expect he’s had to make the same effort every moment of every day since his son died.

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One night, Gray’s old partner-in-crime, Colin (Skeet Ulrich), turns up with a bruised face and a big favor to ask. He’s in debt to the Tongai family, a group of Zimbabwean gangsters, and needs Gray to put his driving gloves on one last time to help him smooth things over. Swayed by his friend’s pleas and the promise of a much-needed paycheck, Gray begrudgingly agrees.

“I’m a dead man walking,” Colin claims as he and Gray hash out the deals of the job. “Aren’t we all?” Gray replies. Esposito’s performance, for which he drops his voice an octave and adds a New Orleans twang, gives these tough-guy lines a hyper-enunciated, Denzel Washington-esque quality that makes them sing. Which is good because Parish is so full of these noir-ish quips that some conversations threaten to become pure aphorism-offs.

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There’s a zen-like calm to Gray when he’s at the wheel, as if the vehicle were an extension of his body. He’s also quick on his feet. When the initial plan goes wrong, he quickly reroutes things by setting up a diversion, changing clothes and stealing a new vehicle—all of this accomplished in a fluid series of clever, careful movements. He’s a delight to watch, which makes it a shame that Parish doesn’t give Esposito more opportunities to put his action-oriented skills to use.

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Gray performs so well during the heist that the Tongais are eager to retain his services moving forward, an offer that he spends the rest of the series trying to refuse. The Zimbabwean crew is run by a Succession-like trio of siblings, all in thrall to their father and determined to inherit his throne. The youngest son, known as The Horse (Zackary Momoh), is the current leader and most interesting of the three, embodying the (supposed) African proverb that a man who wants to go far should “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

The other two siblings are significantly less compelling. The Horse’s sister, Shamiso (Bonnie Mbuli), is a stoic figure who mostly comes across as your run-of-the-mill stiff. And their brother, Zenzo (Ivan Mbakop), is a hot-headed lieutenant in the Joe Pesci mold who never manages to convey the bristling volatility necessary to make those kinds of characters compelling.

In its opening episodes, Parish is fast and lean, its main plot driving furiously forward. But the addition of all these clunky extra storylines prevents it from keeping up this pace. Momentum is lost as we find ourselves wandering down side streets to learn more about the inner-workings of the Tongai’s human trafficking operation or Colin’s relationship with his ex-wife. The latter plotline in particular hits a complete dead-end by the show’s halfway point.

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Many of the plot machinations are also inelegant and, at times, downright illogical. The series eventually even finds a contrived way to link Maddox’s death to the current storyline, robbing it of its thematic and emotional power by turning it into just another cog in the story’s machinery.

Having Esposito in the driver’s seat prevents Parish from spinning out altogether, and there are moments of cool style, like Gray and Colin joyriding through the night to the sound of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember.” But a more streamlined, smartly constructed version of the series could have gotten much more mileage.

Score: 
 Cast: Giancarlo Esposito, Skeet Ulrich, Bradley Whitford, Paula Malcomson, Arica Himmel, Bonnie Mbuli, Zackary Momo, Ivan Mbakop  Network: AMC

Ross McIndoe

Ross McIndoe is a Glasgow-based freelancer who writes about movies and TV for The Quietus, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Wisecrack, and others.

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