‘The Good Lord Bird’: Ethan Hawke is ‘incandescent’ in Showtime’s ‘boldly entertaining’ limited series

The Good Lord Bird” premiered on Showtime on October 4 and is poised to be a serious contender at this winter’s awards, including the Golden Globes, as well as next year’s Emmys. The limited series showcases Ethan Hawke both in front of and behind the camera. He helped adapt James McBride‘s 2013 novel of the same name and portrays John Brown, a “wild-eyed” abolitionist leading a misfit brigade of soldiers that fail to initiate a slave revolt, but ultimately instigate the American Civil War.

As of this writing the series, which Hawkes also produced, has a MetaCritic score of 83 based on 13 reviews, all of them positive. On Rotten Tomatoes, the seven-episode series is off to an impressive start with a 100% freshness rating.

“The Good Lord Bird” is told from the point of view of Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson), a fictionalized character who tags along with Brown’s army after his father is killed in a violent altercation. Onion’s true name is Henry Schackleford, but when Brown mishears the name as Henrietta, Onion is mistaken for a girl and given a dress to wear. Concerned for his safety, Onion doesn’t argue and plays the part, sticking by Brown’s side throughout bloody confrontations in Kansas Territory. As the story progresses, Onion and Brown encounter other historical figures such as Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs) and Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah).

Critics are calling the series “funny, strange, often entertaining and rarely self-serious.” The tragic historical drama is brilliantly sprinkled with comic relief, invigorating its material “with the rousing trappings of a semi-comedic western that gives it a particularly memorable sort of power.” Hawke has been lauded for his “barn-burning, spittle-slinging” portrayal of Brown. “He blows through scenes like a cannon shot; he’s a fury of sound and saliva, crafting warm charisma through pure power, speed and volume.” His 15-year old co-star is being praised for his own breakout performance and “as good as Hawke is, Johnson just might be better.”

Hawke is a front-runner at the Golden Globe nomination for Best Movie/Mini Actor. In 2020 that category was won by Russell Crowe for his performance in another Showtime limited series, “The Loudest Voice.” Should Hawke receive a Golden Globe or Emmy nomination for his performance, it would be his first for a TV series. He was nominated for a Golden Globe in 2015 for his supporting role in the film “Boyhood.” He has previously been nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor in “Training Day” (2002), Best Adapted Screenplay for “Before Sunset” (2004), Best Adapted Screenplay for “Before Midnight” (2013) and Best Supporting Actor in “Boyhood” (2015).

Could “The Good Lord Bird” be Hawke’s next ticket to the Golden Globes? Doing double duty as the series producer and lead actor, he could hear his name read twice on nomination day. Check out some of the reviews below, and join the discussion on this and more with your fellow TV fans here in our forums.

Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com): “It is a Western at its core, filled with incredible settings and design, but it is vibrantly alive in ways that television versions of this genre haven’t been in years. Anchored by a truly remarkable performance from Ethan Hawke, “The Good Lord Bird” is smart, entertaining television that doesn’t highlight or underline its timeliness or messages as much it allows the viewers to do half the work.”

Sonya Saraiya (Vanity Fair): “The miniseries is good – at times, great. But Hawke is beyond great, he is incandescent.”

Matthew Gilbert (The Boston Globe): “‘The Good Lord Bird’ isn’t like many of the wrong-headed white savior stories I’ve seen; Hawke’s complex performance helps avoid some of those tropes (which are mentioned in Onion’s narration right at the top of the series), and the emphasis on Onion’s story as an orphan finding his power helps even more.

Alan Sepinwall (Rolling Stone): “It’s startling how many laughs Hawke generates – and, for that matter, how funny The Good Lord Bird is as a whole, given its subject matter. Hawke, Richard, and their other collaborators (among the directors: Albert Hughes, Kevin Hooks, and Haiffa Al-Mansour) have managed to retain the satirical spirit of McBride’s book.”

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