Say what you will about Reprisal’s mistakes—and there are more than a few of them in Hulu’s latest series—it’s undeniable that everyone involved in this project looks like they’re having the absolute time of their lives. From the opening moments that reveal the origin story of this femme fatale revenge thriller, there’s a heightened state of reality that infuses everything with a melodramatic tenor, leading to actors tending to cut loose in ways that aren’t necessarily flashy, but certainly bold. Not everyone chews the scenery, but enough of it gets gnawed on to make you wonder if there were some unofficial games of one-upmanship going on behind the scenes.
The best way to describe Reprisal might be “rockabilly neo-noir thriller,” if the creative team was also headed by some mutant combination of Quentin Tarantino and John Waters, albeit with a short attention span problem. Oddly, despite the almost complete dearth of Southern accents, this might be the closest anyone has come to matching the Southern-fried appeal of Hap And Leonard, Sundance channel’s late, great buddy-crime drama. But whereas that show always made sure to ground its outsized plots and larger-than-life villains with the easy naturalism of its leads, there’s no solid emotional ground beneath anyone’s feet here. It’s just one layer of gonzo showboating on top of the next, a house of cards that topples whenever it leans too hard into small human drama it hasn’t earned. This is an excellent example of style over substance—and Reprisal has style to burn—but it does mean there’s not a lot going on below the surface of its gimcrack pleasures.
Abigail Spencer takes center stage here, and the actor once again demonstrates why any TV series should be so lucky as to build an entire world around her. Spencer plays Katherine Harlow, a woman dragged behind a truck and left for dead by her sadistic brother Burt (Rory Cochrane), the charismatic leader of a large and family-like gang called the Brawlers, who run a sprawling criminal enterprise centered around Bang-A-Rangs—essentially massive strip clubs with a cartoonish sense of anything-goes hedonism, from cage fighting to illegal drugs. (It’s a testament to the neon-hued cartoonishness of this universe that there’s nothing resembling sex work or trafficking going on; even the strip acts have more of a PG-13 burlesque vibe to them, these hardbitten gangster types suddenly going schoolboy-shy when confronted with actual sexuality.) After miraculously surviving and escaping into a new life in Michigan as married woman Doris Quinn, Katherine decides the time is right to exact her vengeance on those who wronged her, corralling her mousy in-law Molly (Bethany Anne Lind) and some skilled hired guns (Craig Tate and Wavyy Jones) to accompany her on a trip to go after Burt, his right-hand-man Joel (Rodrigo Santoro), bespectacled bruiser Bash (Gilbert Owuor), and any other Brawlers who get in the way. Tough talk gets uttered, punches get thrown, shots fired, and soon enough, Katherine finds herself en route to her long-desired payback.
There may not be much else to it, but damn, Reprisal is one stylish-as-hell show. The production design almost never misses an opportunity to take something simple and make it a little flashier. Whether it’s giving all the Brawlers gorgeous retro automobiles or making sure even light fixtures have a bit of razzle-dazzle to them, there’s nothing left behind in the series’ commitment to creating eye-catching spectacle. The gendered wardrobe is equally striking, if firmly set in the past: The women all dress either as cheesecake pinups or cool-as-ice flappers, while the men uniformly look like they’re coming from the afterparty at League bowling night. (Only comedian and Orange Is The New Black’s Lea DeLaria, as pinup-girl custodian Queenie, gets to bridge the divide, because who the hell would dare order DeLaria to do anything else.)
And the camerawork engages in even more flourishes: Characters telling stories of the past will suddenly be in front of a green screen scrolling through old newsreel or free-associative imagery, à la Natural Born Killers. Sudden realizations will be matched by ostentatious zooms, and in some of the later episodes—helmed by Norwegian wunderkind Eva Sørhaug—there are superb god’s-eye-view shots and framing so excellrnt, Hulu may as well submit half of each episode to the “One Perfect Shot” Twitter account now. It may lack the attention-grabbing visual audacity of Legion, but Reprisal’s retro mashup aesthetic should enchant the inner stimulus-seeking college sophomore of anyone who catches it. (A late-in-the-game, fists-only assault by Santoro’s Joel could go toe-to-toe with that signature tracking shot from True Detective’s first season.)
If only the narrative were up to the task of meeting the show’s witty and elastic visuals. Strip away the window dressing, and there’s not a lot of heart or complexity to Reprisal’s attempt to turn the wronged-woman trope into a broader universe capable of sustaining itself for multiple seasons. A lot of effort goes into immediately making the Masonic-like world of the Brawlers feel as lived-in and compelling as Katherine’s story, the show splitting its attention between her, Joel, star pinup/Burt’s daughter Meredith (Madison Davenport), and a trio of the Brawlers’ road warrior mercenaries—the “Three-River Phoenixes,” led by The Purge’s Rhys Wakefield and his character’s stoic sidekick Johnson (David Dastmalchian, once again doing more with an underwritten role than most actors can do with star vehicles). But the efforts to spread its attention across this large ensemble actually weaken the show, as it never successfully integrates all these moving parts. Meredith takes most of the season to fully come alive, and there’s a Poochie-like exhaustion in watching the show repeatedly try to make its featured Brawler family members come across as badasses. Meanwhile, Katherine gets shortchanged in that department, turning her from empowered to foolish to eloquent and back again as the plot dictates, rather than making narrative subservient to character.
Admittedly, some of these characters are more successful than others: While new recruit Ethan (Mena Massoud) never really feels believable, Santoro is excellent, giving a nuanced portrayal of a haunted man who’s seen too much violence to ever be at peace. His Joel is so compelling and impressive that when his character’s supposedly more magnetic boss Burt finally returns, the ostensible true leader is plainly outmatched in the charisma department, to the point it seems like the Brawlers made a serious error in leadership. And the stylistic devices often overpower the story in foolish ways, such as when Meredith and her friend from a rival gang have a phone conversation, focused almost entirely on their mouths in a split-screen shot, only to have them hang up and be revealed sitting next to each other on a couch. Why do that? Probably because the creative team thought it would look cool. There’s even a first-episode break in the fourth wall, never to be repeated, probably because it’s not terribly successful the first time around. (And a late-season rescrambling of several core characters’ relationships feels especially like a hasty and ill-considered twist.) Still, it’s engaging in a pulpy, soapy way, fun despite its messy structure and slippery consistency. Should Reprisal catch hold, it would be exciting to see it commit to premises and personalities as hard as it does to aesthetics and a wannabe-cool vibe.