'Rellik': TV Review

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Cinemax's new serial killer investigation drama is told in reverse — hence the title — forcing intense concentration, but delivering only occasional rewards.

"Rellik" is "killer" spelled backwards.

It's also the title of a new Cinemax drama series, the second show this spring to follow a serial killer case reverse-chronologically. Had Cinemax been able to premiere Rellik timed to its initial launch on BBC One last fall, it would have looked like the tricky progenitor and Tom Rob Smith's work on The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story might have looked like an imitator, but instead American audiences are getting this one reverse-chronologically.

Actually, being able to watch Rellik and Assassination of Gianni Versace basically back-to-back is an illuminating look at the advantages and disadvantages of storytellers creating obstacles for themselves in constructing otherwise familiar genre stories. Rellik creators Harry and Jack Williams are no strangers to experimenting with formal complications after The Missing and Liar, and they commit much more thoroughly and much more intriguingly to the Memento-like structure over the first five episodes of their six-episode drama. It is novelist Smith, however, who found a way to make a gimmick structure pay off in terms of character development (even if he just made Andrew Cunnan into a half-Filipino Tom Ripley), while Rellik sells out its gimmick entirely with a finale that's an exercise only in exposition and flimsy psychological motivation.

Rellik begins in the aftermath of the shooting of an alleged serial killer who had been murdering seemingly random people, burning them with acid to hinder identification and leaving the bodies in playgrounds in East London. It should be a moment of triumph for Detective Chief Investigator Gabriel Markham (Richard Dormer), his own face covered in a web of scar tissue from an encounter with the killer, but Markham suspects they got the wrong man. Markham has various suspicions relating to a variety of suspicious types including OCD psychiatrist Isaac Taylor (Paterson Joseph), similarly scarred Christine Levinson (Rosalind Eleazar) and several other suspects or red herrings who come and go over six hours. Markham's also got a lot of stuff going on in his personal life, starting with the physical and psychological fallout from his attack and an on-again-off-again affair with former partner Elaine Shepard (Jodi Balfour).

The series starts at what looks like the end of the case and after going forward for 10 or 15 minutes, everything rewinds to an interval before, sometimes only a couple hours and sometimes a couple days. I think the times are intentionally imprecise to give the impression that thought was given to how much time exactly things might take. I don't know if I buy it all the time.

Series directors Sam Miller and Hans Herbots have a lot of visual fun with hitting reverse on falling raindrops, bloody violence and sexual thrusting in the show's most reliable visual motif. The rewinding chapter headings become as familiar a piece of the Rellik rhythm as the Law & Order "thunk-thunk" sound effect. The Williams Brothers have ample fun building mysteries within the main case using the backwards format, though they mostly do it in clumsy ways like having characters say, "Oh, you mean that secret? I thought you were referring to our OTHER secret!" or "This thing that's happening is bad, but not nearly as bad as what happened two weeks ago!" just to give viewers things to look forward to.

The point of the structure, as the writers keep having characters remind us, is to try to get at the "Why?" behind the whodunit. As Markham says in one of the show's 10 move overt articulations of its theme, "If we could go back far enough, if we could understand why people do what they do, if we could understand the motive, maybe we wouldn't spend so much time chasing our own tails," though Rellik by its very nature feels like it's always chasing its tail, eliminating plausible killers and then showing how they came to be suspects in the first place.

We can guess from the earliest episodes that there are signpost events that we'll be building back to. Markham's scars become redder and less healed as we track back to the episode featuring his burning, an intense and pivotal moment that's easily the season's highlight. We know that Markham's wife (Lærke Winther's Lisa) is going to learn certain things about his affair and that she has at least one big secret of her own. Markham's boss and old friend (Ray Stevenson's Benton) keeps insinuating their shared past shadiness. Et cetera.

The structure absolutely causes one to watch Rellik with an attention to detail ordinarily reserved for complicated mythology dramas and foreign-language shows where I know that if I look away from the screen, I'll lose the thread entirely. The frustration comes when the attention you're required to pay isn't validated by the results and revelations. The big twist of the season is distressingly easy to guess and I think it's supposed to be, but the explanation for it is so convoluted you can't possibly guess it without an episode-long exposition download. One of the red herrings proves much more interesting than the main case and then vanishes. Episodes also are fleshed out with three-act stories/mini-mysteries involving Markham's police colleagues that are there to make the show's universe feel less insular and to underline the themes about motivation, yet fail to add up to anything meaningful in terms of character or performance over six episodes.

In a big cast, Dormer (Beric Dondarrion from Game of Thrones) is the only actor with an arc, told in reverse, to play and he's good with the less savory sides of Markham's character. Balfour (of Cinemax's late, lamented Quarry), sporting a wobbly accent, is better the less she has to say, which isn't an insult since she does some very good silent work in the season's second half. Stevenson, who surely could have done well as the star of this series, mixes imperious authority and real concern in a way well beyond what's in the script. Joseph twitches weirdly and does his best with a character whose every line plays as shouted subtext. Featured memorably, but rarely given enough to do, are Eleazar, Tanya Reynolds and especially Paul Rhys.

What shows like Rellik and The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story are doing is acknowledging the entrenchment of crime investigation structure developed over decades of TV procedurals. The extra step that Assassination of Gianni Versace only sometimes took and that Rellik rarely takes is progressing beyond cleverness into narrative rewards. The title itself reflects a series with an "Aren't we cute?" indulgence that doesn't deepen after you've said, "Yeah, I get it."

[NOTE: This entire review was written with the intention to be published with the paragraphs in reverse order. I looked at it, decided it didn't add anything and was probably more annoying than enlightening. So I scrapped the gimmick. There's a lesson here.]

Cast: Richard Dormer, Jodi Balfour, Paterson Joseph, Rosalind Eleazar, Lærke Winther, Shannon Tarbet, Paul Rhys, Ray Stevenson
Creators: Harry and Jack Williams
Premieres: Friday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Cinemax)