The term “noir” gets slapped on a lot of things these days that don’t deserve it, as an all-purpose identifier for productions that are grim and violent and impressed with themselves. It’s there in the news release for Hulu’s new series “Reprisal” (10 episodes premiering Friday): “a hyper-noir story that follows a relentless femme fatale.”
“Reprisal” isn’t really noir, though. It doesn’t have the style or the romance or the fatalism. It’s an example — fairly diverting, but never entirely satisfying — of another currently popular television genre: the fairy tale of aggrieved American manhood, even though in this case the bitter hero is a heroine. Pumped up with rural gothic atmosphere and punctuated with self-consciously curated pop songs, these shows are what happen when you read “Mystery Train” and “Fight Club” and don’t find any appreciable intellectual distance between the two.
These fantasias stretch across genres, and if you’re not looking for them you might not realize how common they are among the assertively woke shows that are drawing more attention at the moment. Notable examples include “Banshee” and “Rectify”; current shows like “True Detective” and “Watchmen” share some of the characteristics. Certain actors make a living off them — Ron Perlman, who’s completely in his element as a quietly menacing mob boss in “Reprisal,” has been a stalwart of the genre through “Sons of Anarchy” and “Hand of God.”
The settings are generally Southern (though occasionally Western or Midwestern), and “Reprisal” takes place in an imaginary South, unlocated except for a reference to its being 900 miles from Detroit. (The show was filmed in North Carolina.) Restaurants have names like Slimmy Hank’s Egg Pit and Bolo’s Worldwide Rathskeller; an important scene of the action is a motel called Donuts & Duvets.
Time and history are also slightly unmoored. The crucial role of flip phones seems to put us in a more or less recent past, though the prevalence of Tommy guns and vintage hod rods argues for something further back. Newscasts report a glowing orange anomaly in the atmosphere, and characters recall their service in the War for the Archipelago.
At the center of this hothouse setting dreamed up by the writer and producer Josh Corbin is a monolithic road house called a Bang-a-Rang. It’s a little bit Cirque du Soleil, a little bit Kit Kat Klub (with Lea DeLaria in the Joel Grey M.C. role), all with a naughty-high-school-drama vibe, as if Baz Luhrmann and David Lynch had collaborated on an after-hours club inside a Walmart. It’s the headquarters of a criminal gang called the Banished Brawlers, who spend most of their time hanging out at the Bang-a-Rang and getting misty-eyed about how they’ve found a “family” based on shared pain and manly camaraderie.
There is a story here also, but it feels wan and patched together — so much of the show’s imagination has gone into the world building and the artisanal Americana and the stylistic flourishes, like the bloody, crunching scenes of violence set to oddball musical choices like “25 or 6 to 4” or “Dammit, Janet” (from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”).
The Brawlers are enjoying a period of peaceful coexistence with their rival gangs (who have equally pretentious names like the Happiness Ghouls), but they’re haunted by an original sin: the betrayal and brutalization years before of the gang leader’s sister, who was dragged behind a truck and left for dead. “Reprisal" — with the double meaning of revenge and repetition — traces her implacable campaign to clear her name and get satisfaction, with extreme prejudice, from the various men who wronged her.
There are cultural-political themes and sexual politics in the mix here. The mostly white good old boys of the Bang-a-Rang feel their long-held privileges, and the sanctity of their fraternal bond, are under unfair assault. The sister is joined in her campaign by a formerly abused, newly empowered homemaker and a pair of small-time African-American Robin Hoods. Caught in the middle are the Bang-a-Rang’s strippers and entertainers, who pick up shotguns when needed. (A lot of the show’s budget went to red light filters, smoke and pasties.)
Doris is played by Abigail Spencer, whose sculpted features and reserved delivery give her an air of retro glamour that’s been exploited before in the lightweight time-travel adventure “Timeless” and the heavy drama “Rectify” — if you’re trying to bake up a noir, she’s the starter. If there’s a monotone quality to her performance here — as there is to that of Rodrigo Santoro (“Westworld”), who plays the most thoughtful of the Brawlers — it’s probably because the show doesn’t take their characters anywhere we can’t see coming.
If you like the combination of violent action, sentimental fantasy, literary pretension and periodic slapstick humor that “Reprisal” offers, you may enjoy it well enough. Or you may wish you were watching something with the energy of “Banshee,” the clammy atmosphere of “Quarry” or the charm of “Hap and Leonard.” But that’s what streaming is for.