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Cinemax’s Rellik Can’t Keep High Concept From Falling Apart

I used to be something of a sucker for British procedurals, often falling for even the most mediocre ones, but something has turned in 2018. Part of the problem is that the good old-fashioned British procedural has somehow merged with the high-concept puzzle box show trend of the ‘10s into some hideous amalgamation of the two. The apex of this is Hulu’s awful “Hard Sun,” but “Rellik,” which premiered on the BBC last October and hits Cinemax this weekend, is close behind. Once again, we have a show that starts with an interesting hook, but everything it hangs on that hook is overheated and just silly. “Rellik” is the better program simply because it doesn’t feel as misogynistic or gross, but it’s another case of a show that wouldn’t really work without its high concept, and the desperation its writers display reveals an awareness of that fact that sinks it.

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If you’re wondering why the creators misspelled relic, that’s not what’s happening here—the title is actually “Killer” in reverse, and the hook of the show is that this is a murder mystery told in reverse. It opens with the police-involved shooting of the main suspect of a series of murders caused by an acid-throwing killer. DCI Gabriel Markham (Richard Dormer) wonders aloud if justice was really served and if they got the right guy. Of course, there’s no show if he did. And then “Rellik,” created by the Williams brothers (creators of the great “The Missing”), jumps back, always keeping us aware of where we are with title cards like “3 hours, 14 minutes earlier”. The whole show works this way—as if you’re watching chapters on a DVD in reverse order. We often see an event and then follow with the rising action to that event instead of the repercussions of it—at its best, we remember the scenes of what technically happens after the moment we’re watching, but it creates an undeniably confusing narrative. It’s supposed to be, in an effort, I guess, to both capture how the why is more important that the who and to recreate the chaos of a criminal investigation.

It’s a decent idea for a show, one that reminded me of “Memento” in its playful revelations, but it’s how the Williams brothers and their writers work within this idea that makes “Rellik” so frustrating. To say that Dormer’s performance in “Rellik” is overheated would be an understatement. His detective has been scarred by acid from the serial killer of the series, is having an affair, and is forced, by the trick of the show, to be turned up to 11 from scene one. There’s a character-based reason that narratives work in a linear fashion—so we can see the development of a decent man to a reckless cop on the edge. Starting on the edge leads to material that plays as overdone in a way it might not have if this story was told in a traditional order. There’s a reason you don’t drop people into the climax of the movie. They’d likely think it was silly. And Dormer’s over-acting doesn’t help.

There’s also a sense that “Rellik” isn’t exactly playing by its own rules. Sure, it’s going in reverse, but it’s also revealing things in a traditional mystery order, but the gimmick reduces those reveals to hopeless plot twists. We know this case gets screwed up and our hero’s life is ruined. So everything in “Rellik” starts to feel cheap and manipulative. Some viewers have bemoaned the fact that too much modern TV relies on a “puzzle box” structure, designed to get people espousing fan theories on Reddit more than appreciating it as art. “Rellik” is undeniably a puzzle, but it’s one that’s put together at the beginning and taken apart as the show goes along. And, in the end, all you’re left with is a bunch of pieces.

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