‘Reprisal’ puts a lot of effort into being effortless

Tuesday, December 10, 2019 - 5:51pm

NOSELL

Hulu

“Reprisal,” a new TV show streaming on Hulu, thinks it’s really cool. And you know what? It’s right. “Reprisal” is cool. It’s a gorgeous blend of neon lights, Lolita sunglasses, dank motel rooms, rusty hot rods and sequins on burlesque costumes. The time period is hazy — flip phones are as present as pastel rotary landlines. “Reprisal” has a lot going for it. Whether it’s enough to be truly worthwhile remains to be seen.

The story, while presented as twisted and complex, is rather simple: A man betrays a woman. The woman gets revenge. The man and woman in question, however, are brother and sister. Together, they make up a sibling team who run a vaguely Southern, extremely violent gang called the Banished Brawlers. Picking up years after her brother Burt left her for dead, “Reprisal” follows Katherine Harlow (Abigail Spencer, “Mad Men,”) now under the alias Doris Quinn. Since her brush with death, Doris married a wealthy Detroit restauranteur with a terminal illness, so she can eventually collect his inheritance.

Meanwhile, a former employee of Doris, Ethan Hart (Mena Massoud, “Aladdin”) arrives at Burt’s Bang-a-Rang, a no-holds-barred night club operating as the Brawlers’ headquarters. Ethan is soon recruited by a smaller group called the Three River Phoenixes to help transport contraband between the Bang-a-Rang’s various branch locations. As a Phoenix, Ethan meets — and becomes infatuated with — the club’s star pin-up girl Meredith (Madison Davenport, “Sharp Objects”) who happens to be the daughter of the gang’s leader, Burt Harlow. 

As Ethan gains the trust of the Phoenixes, he communicates his successes with Doris, who has been slowly building a gang of her own to take down the Brawlers from the inside. With the help of two small-time criminals and her timid daughter-in-law, Doris sets out to reclaim her identity as Katherine and destroy her brother’s empire. 

Despite its solid concept and striking exterior, “Reprisal” starts off slow and relies on gratuitous violence and trite mobster-movie dialogue to bide time before Doris/Katherine can get bloody revenge. Within the first four episodes, the show sets up so many subplots for minor characters that, even with a flawless look, the story feels messy and disorganized. 

Rather than explore the nuances of Doris’s story, “Reprisal” sets up every character as seeking their own individual form of redemption. Ethan’s wanted for murder in Michigan. Meredith searches for her missing stunt-woman mother and sells dangerous hallucinogens to bankroll her investigation. Gang elder Joel (Rodrigo Santoro, “300”) leads the Brawlers while trying to raise his young daughter away from the violence. Burlesque emcee Queenie (Lea DeLaria, “Orange Is the New Black”) tries to assert herself as a valuable member of the gang. As the season progresses, “Reprisal” starts feeling more like a TV-MA version of “Riverdale” than a coherent, adult drama. 

The stakes of “Reprisal” are constantly changing, and, as a result, the pacing of the show suffers. One minute, a room of bikers are getting murdered. The next, a girl watches a home video from the ’70s. Yet, somehow, both moments are still boring in comparison to the very best of the show’s visuals. In trying to cross over into multiple genres and aesthetics, “Reprisal” can’t settle on what actually works.

“Reprisal” may not be the next “Sopranos” or “Sons of Anarchy.” It may not be the most innovative or compelling thing on TV right now. It may not even be the best “woman seeks revenge in patriarchal system” show on Hulu at the moment — looking at you, “Handmaid’s Tale.” However, if “Reprisal” can figure out what its strongest characters and story lines are, the show could end up being just as cool as it looks.