Giancarlo Esposito Is Spellbinding in New Crime Drama ‘Parish’

There are countless upsides to never seeing a single episode of Breaking Bad.

For one, I get to tune out of those “best television shows of all time” conversations that people have at parties whenever they get to the Walter White of it all, and instead, ponder whether I’m responsible enough to invest in a large plant. Other times, I have the privilege of never having to care about what’s going on with Aaron Paul’s career. But the best part of not giving a single hoot about the meth show—or its spinoff, Better Call Saul—is that I have been able to avoid unconsciously pigeonholing Giancarlo Esposito. If I wasn’t able to see one of America’s finest character actors as anyone but Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul’s Gus Fring, I simply don’t know what I’d do.

That reality would be a frustrating one, given that Esposito has been popping up everywhere lately. After a stint on The Mandalorian, major parts in two recent Netflix series (of varying quality), and some excellent voice work on Max’s animated Harley Quinn, Esposito is returning to the network that made him a notable face. His latest drama, Parish—which begins airing Mar. 31 on AMC—is a moderately gripping thriller that works best when it keeps the focus on its star. Esposito’s charm and verve help the six-episode season move at a crackling pace, which comes to a noticeable halt whenever he’s not on-screen. While those looking for Breaking Bad-level excitement from Esposito won’t be disappointed, anyone seeking a wholly impressive crime story will be let down by Parish’s imbalanced action.

In the series, Esposito plays Gracian ‘Gray’ Parish, a former getaway driver who cleaned up his act and established an above-board car company in New Orleans. Gray lives for his family, but remains haunted by his son Maddox’s recent death, which has impeded the success of his business, and in turn, the security of his family’s life. When Colin (a comically twang-heavy Skeet Ulrich), a friend from Gray’s checkered past, shows up looking for a favor, Gray is in no position to turn Colin down. But, no surprise here, the job is far more complicated than Colin initially lets on.

A still from the series Parish on AMC

Alyssa Moran / AMC

Those familiar with 2023’s excellent series Kaleidoscope will immediately note the narrative similarities between Gray and Esposito’s leading role as Leo Pap in the Netflix heist caper. Esposito is back playing another ex-con, strapped for cash, ready to take one last job and get out for good. The parallels between these characters are unfortunate, given that Kaleidoscope did a far better job at fleshing out this archetype than Parish does. Gray’s judgment is clouded by Maddox’s passing, but his son’s death becomes an afterthought in the series, until it’s needed to tie stray plot points together toward its conclusion. This decision slices the ultimate emotional impact of Gray’s efforts in half, even if it does make for a more conventionally gripping motive for our hero.

Although it’s not handled as intelligently as it could be, keeping Maddox’s storyline in the mix is a smart move. The safety of teenagers and young adults remains at the forefront of the Parish’s thematic framework. Colin’s offer to Gray gets the two of them involved with the Tongais family, a band of trigger-happy human traffickers working out of New Orleans. The group, led by soft-spoken leader The Horse (Zackary Momoh) and his older brother Zenzo (Ivan Mbakop) and sister Shamiso (Bonnie Mbuli), are a frightening bunch, largely because of how cavalierly they speak about the buying, selling, and shipment of humans for dodgy businesses and perverse special interests. This is the kind of dark underbelly that some crime shows won’t wade into, or will simply suggest with a bit more ambiguity, and Parish’s reluctance to dance around the wickedness of the Tongais’ crimes gives the show a decent set of dramatic stakes.

But even at six episodes that each fall under an hour, Parish can’t get out without making a mess of itself—something the show and its main character have in common. After the initial transport that Gray is hired for goes awry, he’s got to think on his feet and adapt to the situation. Malleability is one of Gray’s special skills, and his performance in the heat of chaos makes the Tongais keen to retain their new driver. It’s less of an offer than a demand, and the Tongais’ reluctance to lose Gray complicates things further when Gray learns of the family’s prickly connection to his old boss, Anton (Bradley Whitford).

From here, storylines start spilling loose, and the writers are unable to take the reins back as they try to sprinkle in more side plots about Colin’s divorce and the well-being of Gray’s wife and daughter. It’s not that Parish isn’t easy to follow; it’s more that the series overcomplicates itself. Not every show requires an all-encompassing arc that closes each character’s narrative loop; concentrating on Gray and Gray alone would have elevated Parish beyond its familiar crime drama structure.

A still from the series Parish on AMC

Alyssa Moran / AMC

Each time the show falls into disarray, Esposito is there to set things back on track—even if it’s only a matter of time before Parish starts to swerve again. At 65, Esposito remains a slick and riveting presence, making Gray quick on his feet and stalwart behind the wheel when he needs to make a quick getaway. Esposito balances the fearlessness that his character demands with the sentimental connection that Gray needs to connect to the viewer. It’s no shock that Esposito is fantastic in his role, but it’s entertaining to watch the ways that he fleshes out the nuances of Gray’s personality. When the show’s writers are working with a heavy hand, Esposito complements them with a subtle touch, crafting a role that is far more memorable than the series itself.

Sometimes, that’s the price of bringing a formidable actor into a middling show: They’ll be so great that they outshine the entire production. That is, however, a fair cost. Without Esposito, Parish would be a far less intriguing affair. He keeps the series afloat when it struggles to live up to its potential after the halfway point, and even when it’s running on fumes, it crosses the finish line without completely squandering the goodwill it crafted at its start. Forget about Saul, keep Esposito on speed dial.

This post was originally published on Daily Beast

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