Giancarlo Esposito the driving force in AMC’s high-octane thriller ‘Parish’

From “Breaking Bad” to “Better Call Saul” to “Revolution” to “Dear White People” to “The Mandalorian” to the recent Netflix limited series “The Gentlemen,” Giancarlo Esposito has been a brilliant contributor to myriad high-quality television series for the last quarter-century — and it’s great to see him bringing his unique on-screen presence to center stage as the titular character in the stylish, sleek and at times brutally effective AMC series “Parish.”

Over the course of just six fast-paced episodes, Esposito creates a memorable character in this crime drama based on the BBC One series “The Driver.”

Making great use of its New Orleans setting, “Parish” takes place in the present day but has the look and feel of an entertainingly lurid 1990s thriller. Esposito’s Gracián “Gray” Parish, flexing a gruff New Orleans accent, has some of the same fastidious attention to sartorial detail and well-mannered comportment as Gus Fring from “Breaking Bad” and “Saul” as well as Stanley Johnston from “The Gentlemen,” but Gray is no powerful drug kingpin or wine-collecting billionaire. He’s a low-key family man and the proprietor of a luxury car service in New Orleans that has taken hard financial hits in large part due to the popularity of ride-hailing services. Still in deep mourning for the son who was murdered a year earlier and in danger of losing his business and his home, Gray is reluctant, yet eventually willing, to return to his past in exchange for a much-needed cash influx.

About that past. Nearly 20 years ago, Gray was a highly sought-after wheelman — but after he met a woman named Ros (Paula Malcomson, “Ray Donovan”) in Chicago, they settled down in New Orleans and started a family, and Gray left the life. That all changes when Gray’s lifelong friend Colin (Skeet Ulrich), who is out of prison after serving a long stretch, comes to Gray, begging for help. Colin is one of those guys who can’t get through the day without getting into trouble, and he’s deep in debt to a ruthless local crime family. In order to make it right, he needs to pull off a high-risk break-in, and he needs a driver, and Gray owes Colin because Colin did hard time and never once sang to the authorities about Gray . Convenient plot device alert!

As you’d expect, the job goes sideways, REALLY sideways, and the obligatory One Last Job premise quickly turns into something ongoing, complicated, violent and dangerous.

We’re introduced to a number of characters, nearly all of them embroiled in a New Orleans underworld that involves human trafficking, the building of a new casino, an unsolved murder and a key political race.

Gray finds himself entangled with a Zimbabwean crime family that has moved its base to New Orleans. Zackary Momoh is chillingly effective as the gangster known as The Horse, with Bonnie Mbuli as his cool and calculating sister, Shamiso Tongai, and Ivan Mbakop as his volatile brother, Zenzo Tongai.

The outstanding ensemble cast also includes Bradley Whitford as Anton, a powerful and wealthy industrial businessman with deep ties to the criminal world, Amanda Brugel as Sister Anne, a nun, who like Gray, has left a much darker life behind; and Arica Himmel as Gray and Rose’s teenage daughter Makayla, who knows nothing of her father’s past. For now.

It’s an interesting turn to see Esposito playing a character who, unlike Gus Fring, has never been in charge of any operation, and that includes Gray’s home life. Tensions are high between Gray and Ros, especially after their son’s death, and their daughter feels isolated and invisible to her father. Gray keeps telling The Horse that he just wants to go home to his family, but we all know that’s not happening.

“Parish” benefits greatly from a keen sense of pacing. The filmmakers know exactly how much time to devote to various subplots before returning to the main story lines that have Gray at the center. There are moments of shocking violence (including one scene that plays like a callback to one of the most famous and notorious moments in “Breaking Bad”), and given that Gray is a driver, yes, there are some well-choreographed chase scenes. The supporting cast is excellent, but this is Giancarlo Esposito’s vehicle, and he’s in command throughout.

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