This is the Terrible Review of 'Reacher' We've All Been Waiting For

David James/Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions via AP

Back in 2022 I wrote about the then-new show called Reacher which, like the Tom Cruise movies, was based on a long series of books by Lee Child. Here's how I described the character and the show at the time.

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As a character for a novel it’s a good set up. He stumbles upon a cabal of villains in some small, isolated town and the bad guys send a crew of 3 or 4 people to deal with him, sometimes more than once. All of them end up with lots of broken bones and long-term injuries. And in the process, Reacher gets more angry and determined to bust up the ring that has unwisely decided to mess with him. Basically, if you took Sherlock Holmes put him in the body of Arnold Schwarzenegger and had him walk the earth like Caine in Kung Fu you’d have Jack Reacher...

I watched the first episode last night and I can tell you that, so far, they’ve got it right. If you’re not a fan of the books or of this genre it won’t be for you, but so far Reacher really captures the feel of the books. In one scene early on, some creep is threatening his terrified girlfriend and Reacher just turns and looks at him. For a moment the guy mouths off and Ritchson as Reacher doesn’t move, doesn’t speak. He just keeps staring at the guy. And after looking Reacher over the creep apologizes and promises it won’t happen again. That’s what the books are like. Reacher is a “catalyst character.” Wherever he goes, things change and people change because he doesn’t leave them any choice.

Reacher spends most of his time in the books saving damsels from genuine distress and teaching murderous bad guys they are not the toughest kids on the block. But given the times we live in it was inevitable that this light entertainment would eventually be labeled racist. Today, Vulture published a very belated review of the series which does exactly that.

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Wallpaper TV is marked by an easygoing approachability and a low lift for concentration. These are series propelled by vibes that you can groove to as a viewer but whose characterization, narrative, and visual dimensions hew toward simplicity, if not banality. Amusement is tantamount, but these shows don’t ask much of the audience,and they certainly don’t challenge their fans. They’re perfect in the background, half-watched while sweeping the apartment. This is what I was expecting from Reacher: a mildly appealing series that required little of me, spoke to my mother’s televisual interests, and featured a tank of a man who was easy enough on the eyes. But swiftly after starting the series I realized there was something more complex about Reacher, a glaringly white fantasy that can’t help but crack under the weight of its conservative values. This isn’t merely hackneyed wallpaper TV; it’s uncanny fiction that exemplifies just how intensely Hollywood has returned to whiteness after years of feigning interest in diversity broadly and Blackness with a particular extricative zeal.Watching Reacher isn’t easygoing; it’s like watching a frightening manifestation of the free-falling American empire on a loop...

My prior knowledge of this literary franchise was admittedly shallow, mostly informed by my experience of the dim Tom Cruise movies. But this Reacher adaptation is a different beast. And beast is exactly the right word for it — featuring as it does a Dodge Charger who’s achieved human form (actor Alan Ritchson). When Reacher, who refuses to be addressed by his first name, Jack, saunters into the fictional town of Margrave, Georgia, the show portrays his masculinity as exceedingly powerful yet good-natured; something to be obeyed but also preserved and exalted. In the premiere episode, Reacher wordlessly halts a domestic-abuse incident on his way into a diner, where, once inside, he doesn’t get to enjoy his cup of black coffee, or the slice of peach pie marketed as the best in the state, because he’s soon arrested for a murder he didn’t commit. He asserts his innocence at the police station, refusing to cooperate unless someone releases him from the zip ties encircling his wrists. (The handcuffs are too small, of course.) “Get the box cutter,” the routinely disrespected police chief says. “It’s okay. I got it,” Reacher says before popping the zip tie by sheer force. He picks up the fallen plastic. “Do you guys recycle?” A knowing smirk never leaves his face. Reacher knows that if a white man is tall enough, the world will bend to his whims.

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I just have one question for this author. What did she think of the Equalizer series of movies? That series is based on the same exact sort of pulp storytelling, i.e. a heavily trained fighter/killer who lives off the grid but who also abides by a personal code stumbles upon a group of bad guys who he decided to bring down because he doesn't like what they do. The outcome is usually very brutal for the bad guys. Those films all starred Denzel Washington instead of Alan Ritchson and they were successful enough that they made three of them. 

I don't know, maybe she's written a similar screed about those films but I sort of doubt it. Her problem isn't with the concept of a one-man wrecking crew in a pulp action film it's with the a white guy playing the role. Her main issue is with Reacher's relationship with the other major character in Season 1, a black police captain named Oscar Finlay whose major focus in the series isn't racism:

Reacher habitually refers to Finlay’s love of tweed, says he dresses like the Black Sherlock Holmes, and relays how Finlay’s underlings refer to him as a “Beantown Bitch.” There’s a sense that the word “uppity” remains unspoken in every instance, just on the tip of Reacher’s tongue. (A Harvard-educated negro, out of his depth, who doesn’t know his place in the schema of white society, needing the help of a real American? Is that a thinly veiled rejection of the Obama years?) The show handles racism — the kind Finlay would obviously face in a small, rural Georgia town run by fierce capitalist interests — by not handling it all: He just doesn’t face racism.

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My memory of the first season is pretty dim at this point but I thought the conclusion was that Reacher and Finlay had a sort of mutual respect for one another after taking down the bad guys together. Maybe I'm wrong but I definitely don't remember it as a hotbed of white supremacy. The author's mom agreed it was good entertainment.

Reacher is the most insidious example of television that fronts as wallpaper TV but is fueled by and fully displays toxic beliefs about power and America. Indeed, my mother found it to be fluffy entertainment, because that’s how it wants to be seen. A trifle whose poison goes down as smooth as expensive whiskey. Blackness may no longer be allowed to have its cool edge in Hollywood, but whiteness still has use for it.

This is a clear case of someone bringing their own perspective to the show and then insisting that's the only perspective that matters. But for most people, this is just light entertainment in which the race of the characters isn't the focus of the story. There's no poison here beyond the obvious pulp fantasy that the good guy always makes the right call and the bad guys always deserve what's coming. 

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Jazz Shaw 10:00 PM | June 12, 2024
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