1 out of 5
Created by: Josh Corbin
Late in the first season of Reprisal, one character hands another a gun, and says something, in part, to the effect of: “…you’re going to need this.” The way the handoff is dressed and treated, this act is important; the gun has significance. But there’s no reason for either: we’ve seen plenty of guns being shot by this point of the show, by this character; they’re easy to come by, and apparently familiar to said character. That the mentioned event takes place in the past, as we know it, doesn’t matter: our showrunners are forcing the ‘importance’ of this moment on us through visual signposting, and we’re just expected to accept it. This handoff is followed by a hook: that one day, the character will tell the other how they got that gun in the first place.
An episode or so later, we’re told that story. It’s one line, and it’s a plain one. The teller shrugs with a smirk, and the unspoken moral is that sometimes what’s unsaid is left that way because there’s not much to say; another step along those lines: a story can just be a story.
This is indicative of how Reprisal’s plot and characters are delivered to us across ten episodes of “neonoir.” Abigail Spencer plays a character named Doris with whom we pick up – as a blond, short-haired, waitress – after the cold open event (black, long hair) during which she seems to be betrayed by a pack of bikers. A man named Witt (W. Earl Brown) appears to connect this new life and what we assume is her past one, and an incident at her current job involving a young staff member named Ethan (Mena Massoud) gives Doris the opportunity to take revenge for this betrayal that apparently left her for dead. From the top down, this is a fine setup, and as Doris goes about executing her plan – taking her through local gang bosses, recruiting a put-upon housewife and a small heist crew to her cause, picking on other biker packs which circle the one to which she presumably originally belonged – Reprisal moves through enough noir touchstones to, on paper, be a convincing pulp thriller. …If any of what we saw actually connected with the characters as they’re represented, or events as we see them.
Some other ephemeral examples: Witt is constantly known by other characters for his peculiar hair, but his hair looks completely normal. This could be a joke, but Reprisal doesn’t show enough signs of awareness for that. The ‘neo’ in neonoir is suggestive of the alternate timeline in which the show takes place, which features 50s styles, 70s music, cellphones, made up wars and ecological events. The mashup could be interesting, but it doesn’t feel as ingrained as something like steampunk, which at least has (generally) some establishing rules; Reprisal just feels like a pick-and-choose of what might be cool to see on screen – we like this style; we like this music – and then laziness when era-appropriate plotting couldn’t be achieved, so just use cells to text one another.
And the more direct examples come way too frequently, as Doris convinces people to join her scheme without any real signs of her competence or needs. On the flip side, we have the biker gang, who bond people together over “family”, but again, we never quite see that. They run a bar / dancehall called the Bang-a-rang for money, and it more seems like people just hang out there so they can gas up their retro cars and watch dancing ladies. The ominous Burt (Rory Cochrane) runs things with an iron hand that scares other just at his name’s mention, but when we meet him, he’s sort of a dummy, hobbling on a cane and drinking tea. As with the gun story I started with, there’s unspoken irony here, but Reprisal is so keen on shushing that stuff to the background that it hardly comes across, if at all.
All of these examples are wrapped up in a heated shooting style which imparts gravitas every damn shot. And in every damn shot, nothing happens to support that. None of the characters’ motivations matter, and as a result, none of the story matters.
One of the greatest sins of TV and movies is to be boring. The first word that comes to mind for Reprisal is, admittedly, underwhelming, because there’s some stuff between the lines that has potential, but the end effect, unfortunately, is about the same as being boring.