Rellik, the new crime drama from Cinemax, attempts to dismantle the relationship between cause and effect by placing one before the other. Its central experiment—which, despite the best efforts of creators Harry and Jack Williams (The Missing), is what it boils down to—is less silly than its title (“Killer,” backwards), but more silly than the miniseries’ offbeat narrative deserves.
The story hops backwards in time over a few different intervals, each explaining bits and pieces of what we’ve first seen—in the pilot, a police sniper shooting the suspected serial killer. This killer is the central figure in a plot that sounds like a superhero origin story. A villain attacks his victims with acid, making the seemingly random targets even harder to identify, but one of the survivors is also the lead detective on his case. Detective Chief Inspector Gabriel Markham (Game of Thrones’ Richard Dormer) takes the case as personally as physically possible and, along with his family and fellow police officers, explores paths as branching as the tendrils of scar tissue on his face.
Relationships are built in regressive loops, mirroring the progress made in the case. We learn the result, then the cause—which clarifies or further complicates our inferences about what we first see. This creates a crime show that seems like it’s playing fast and loose with its audience’s comprehension, when it’s actually confusing and misdirecting by design. Depending on what kind of satisfaction you like to take from your TV, this can be exciting or frustrating. Some people like to have their TV solvable and their intelligence confirmed by the end of the arc. Some would rather luxuriate in a set of messy and labyrinthine problems.
The relevant problems here—and there are plenty of irrelevant (or seemingly irrelevant) ones, too—mostly boil down to “why” after we already know the “who” and the “what.” We, along with the show’s detectives, must travel up the daunting mouth of the criminal Mississippi to find its humble source. What’s the initial motive that pushes a person to commit deviant acts? Drenching us in interpersonal squabbles, Rellik pushes the theory that any cause for criminality likely started off benign.
This thesis is outlined through stagnancy and observation, like when Markham is stuck in traffic with a homeless windshield-washer. It’s here that being consciously aware of people’s entire lives as timelines of decisions marks the detective as a humanist while marking his world as an unforgiving one. The world’s full of cynical guys that have it all figured out and sentimental clowns willing to give change to someone sure to spend it on heroin. Markham, despite speaking with the authority of the former, is one of the latter, and all the better for it.
Markham is mostly grumbly and almost decent. (He’s having an affair and treats suspects like garbage, but those are out of the gumshoe handbook.) He speaks either monosyllabically or in extended metaphor. Maybe I’ve made him sound intolerable, but Dormer’s gruff growl and pained stare, emanating from an acid-scarred face, are endearing nonetheless. He’s not an antihero, really, but the curmudgeon you’d still hate to see anything happen to. While his relationships and those surrounding him all seem tainted with the nebulous sins of the past—all slowly uncovered after an increasingly tiring amount of foreshadowing as we get accustomed to the backtracking format—the actual sins and the locales themselves are less disturbing.
Though it’s always rainy and shadowy, aside from the bright park where the opening shooting occurs, there’s a disappointing lack of style in Rellik. There are few instances of its title sequence’s extreme close-ups, ripped from a David Fincher film, although the series compensates somewhat by replicating the filmmaker’s skill at directing sightlines. A focus on eyes and their gaze gives shots through rainy windows, spied from parked cars, more motivation than pure voyeurism. Those eyes, and the face that holds them, are the point of much discussion and interrogation, which builds out a criminal psychology from a disfiguring M.O. Meanwhile, those afflicted come to terms with what their facial changes mean to their sense of identity. Hence Markham’s affair and the cavalcade of lame confrontations that stem from it.
Rellik’s structure can make plot developments feel like groaners because they’re so highly telegraphed, in part because the series is unraveling the relationship between viewer and information that drama has relied on ever since a caveman left his audience midway through a story about his cousin hanging off a cliff. It doesn’t matter if these reveals are handled through a femme fatale who wears a red dress to a cremation (Jodi Balfour), a pair of cop lovers—one of whom is still closeted—or a creepy psychologist (Paterson Joseph): We either find it too hard to care about the reason why something happens (because we know too little) or we find it repetitive (because we know too much).
Still, the series can be a delightful experiment in memory. Reliving scenes with prior knowledge of how they play out, reminding us of how many details we subconsciously take in and which ones we categorize as important or unimportant, that’s fun. It also takes meticulous craft, the kind that makes you scour the pages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for a throwaway adjective or passing reference that could allow you to ascend the ranks of Holmes. But that’s just a tasty topping on a rather bland entree.
Rellik, failing to escape its gimmicky premise, is six episodes of schlock that just happens to be the antithesis of spoiler culture. By working backwards from its reveals, the series captures some of the leftover Columbo magic that occurs when a show is focused on more than plot. That show gave the audience the killer and the murder method in the opening scene, sometimes accompanied with a motive. Then it was up to a charmingly rumpled detective to work along a path leading to a destination known to his viewers. Rellik, though no Columbo, flavors the same philosophy with a 24-like immediacy and noirish aesthetic. But despite the show’s focus on its well-worn plotting, it’s how they build backwards from their whodunnit that makes the experience worthwhile.
Rellik premieres Friday, April 13 at 9 p.m. on Cinemax.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.