'Reprisal': TV Review

For all of its fast cars and fast women, this is a clunky slog.
12/6/2019

A revenge thriller with a rockabilly noir lens, Hulu's series boasts a vibrant world, a strong lead performance by Abigail Spencer and some really dull storytelling.

At some point, nearly every major female character in Hulu's Reprisal ends up drenched in blood.

In a show filled with vivid imagery — modified vintage automobiles, flashy neon signs, '50s-evoking fashions — this is perhaps the defining visual motif.

Sometimes they're artfully spattered, like a sanguine pointillist painting. Sometimes they're bathed, like a deranged child using a slaughterhouse sluice as a Slip 'N Slide.

But blood is inevitable, a function of female rage, female empowerment and, occasionally, female victimization (inevitably followed by female rage).

Through seven episodes of its 10-episode first season, Reprisal is a fascinating and audacious series, absolutely a work of some vision. It's also questionably paced, only sporadically involving and, as interesting as its women are, its male characters are a bland and interchangeable blob of facial hair and tattoos and, in that capacity, steal the spotlight all too frequently.

I can describe the plot of Reprisal, which was created by Josh Corbin, with ease: In an act of horrible betrayal, Katherine Harlow (Abigail Spencer) is left for dead by her brother, Burt (Rory Cochrane), a growling leader of a gang of car-loving renegades. Years later, now calling herself Doris, Katherine rounds up a crew to seek revenge.

Describing the world of Reprisal is much more complicated. You might not call it science fiction, but it's surely a speculative universe with its focus on these rival gearhead gangs, boasting vivid insignias, outsize names like the "Banished Brawlers" and "The Ghouls," and complicated hierarchies. It's a version of something resembling the present complete with nebulously described military conflicts, a wholly different cinema and a technological evolution in which, other than the occasional flip phone, all hints of modernity stopped in the '80s. It's hyperactive, colorful, pulpy and crazy, a thing in which no comparison exactly does it justice. Maybe it's rockabilly noir? Perhaps it's Mad Max if the marauding clans somehow rose to prominence despite the lack of an apocalypse? Elements feel like things you've seen before, but in its totality, it's pretty new.

The world is a lot and what kept me watching through the early episodes were the little details pointing to how these characters and this society could have developed and where anything "mainstream" or "normal" might fit into this tapestry. I don't know how much of it adds up logically and I definitely don't know how much time I'd want to spend here after getting a few more answers, but it's vibrant and well-considered.

How, then, is it so darned dull? It's verging on unfathomable how a show this theoretically streamlined, where the revving of car engines is practically another instrument in the score, where stabbings and bludgeonings are commonplace, where the biker bars border on burlesque and normies pay top dollar for tickets to gatherings called bang-a-rangs, could so frequently lack all narrative momentum or energy. This should be a lean-and-mean B-movie machine, Roger Corman on the small screen, but so much of what I've seen is people sitting around explaining things or barking threats at each other. Episodes frequently and inexcusably hover around an hour apiece and barely require half that time. The seven episodes I've seen contained enough plot for two episodes and enough characterization for maybe three.

It's really only the sixth and seventh episodes, directed with verve by Eva Sorhaug, that find the badass spirit that probably the entire series should have had — and only the last 10 minutes of the seventh episode, set with ironic glee around Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4," that provide the rocket fuel to keep me watching with any enthusiasm. Otherwise, it's a talky, not especially well-written, show that squanders more than it stokes.

Spencer, so good on Rectify and Timeless, has the requisite style and attitude to play this sort of woman scorned and, as she's so often done in other roles, injects unexpected grace notes of humor. As a dancer/dealer at a Banished Brawler club, Madison Davenport blends bratty vulnerability and simmering resentment, as one of the plot's myriad women coming to terms with being exploited or overlooked. Stealing scenes as the story goes along are Bethany Anne Lind as Katherine/Doris' seemingly vulnerable daughter-in-law and the great Lea DeLaria as Queenie, vicious den mother and coordinator for the nightly burlesque revue.

Were the show only the women, Reprisal would improve by leaps and bounds. Rodrigo Santoro and Gilbert Owuor, as Brawler leaders, and Mena Massoud, as a new errand boy, are mournful and placid afterthoughts, respectively. David Dastmalchian and Rhys Wakefield at least contribute oddness, while Wavyy Jonez and Craig Tate have some amusing attitude. Still, I feel like the thesis of Reprisal is, "This is a world in which posturing masculine attitude has made a mess of everything and needs to be removed," a lesson that the show itself probably needed to learn sooner.

In this respect, it's funny that two shows as superficially different, but thematically similar, as Reprisal and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are hitting streaming in the same week. Two foreign and hyper-stylized worlds. Two chronicles of female voice-reclaiming and dippy, dull men. (May Midge Maisel avoid ending this season drenched in blood.) Both are sure to find audiences, flaws aside. Your enthusiasm for concentrating on what's enticing in the world of Reprisal while ignoring those flaws may be greater than mine.

Cast: Abigail Spencer, Rodrigo Santoro, Mena Massoud, David Dastmalchian, Rhys Wakefield, Craig Tate, Wavyy Jonez, Madison Davenport, Gilbert Owuor, Bethany Anne Lind, Lea DeLaria
Creator: Josh Corbin
Premieres Friday (Hulu)