There are few things I find more compelling than a fascinating premise disappointingly executed. I was overjoyed to discover, nearly two decades ago, that somebody had come up with the excellent idea of making an intense spy thriller shot entirely in real time, with each episode unfolding over the course of an hour and each following directly on from the next. I was somewhat let down when I actually watched the first series of 24 and realised that it was basically a completely ordinary spy thriller, with completely ordinary spy thriller pacing, which made no concessions whatsoever to the implications or limitations of its gimmick. I mean seriously, it takes more than two minutes to drive across LA in rush hour traffic.
You know what else would be a cool idea for a thriller – a hunt for a serial killer shot backwards, so you end with the suspect being caught and then each episode comes before the last. After all, the way a murder mystery normally works is that you begin with the exciting bit (the death) and then the detective carefully pieces together the evidence, effectively taking you back in time to the start of the whole affair, why not take that idea and turn it into a framing device?
Turns out there are a whole lot of reasons why not.
Enter Rellik, the BBC’s new thriller series which, with its grey-and-brown palette, grisly crimes and moody protagonist, seems to be aiming for a slice of the scandi-noir market (viewers apparently can’t get enough of slightly grumpy people solving slightly horrible crimes in gloomy bits of Europe) but winds up reading far more as farce than as tragedy. I mean it probably isn’t a good sign when three episodes into your very serious thriller, the Radio Times (for international readers, that’s a popular UK Television listings magazine) is running articles with titles like Is Rellik Supposed to be Funny?
Also, you’ve probably already noticed that the title of the show, Rellik, is Killer spelled backwards. This … this really should set your expectations for what the show is like.
Before I go any further, because the show is shot in reverse (periodically the action pauses and we see things rapidly spool backwards until we restart with a caption saying something like “12 hours and 8 minutes earlier”) talking about timing is going to be a nightmare. I’m going to use the convention of referring to the timeline as experienced by the characters (where the beginning is first and the ending is last) as diegetic and the timeline experienced by the viewers (where the ending is first and the beginning is last) as narrative. I expect this to be slightly clearer than mud, but only slightly.
The Bad Beginning
Not all of these subheadings will come from Lemony Snicket titles but, well, I wanted to start at the beginning, and a lot of the issues I have with the show are evident from the outset, so it just sort of fit.
I’d love to say that Rellik starts strongly. And it almost does. Okay, it almost-almost does. Okay, it gets within throwing distance of almost does. Almost. We open with a man in a hoodie, his face horribly scarred as if by acid, going into a petrol station (I think? Some kind of late night shop – it’s honestly not a massively memorable sequence) and buying something or being intimidating to the owner or … seriously my recollection is vague. We catch a fragment of a news report about how a serial killer who burns people’s faces off with acid has been killed in a police shootout. Then we see mysterious hoodie man digging through a grave with his bare hands, and finding some kind of prescription bottle which seems to contain an SD card, and looking at the camera like something significant has happened. Then we spool backwards and OMG Plot Twist! He is actually a police detective trying to catch a serial killer!
This so nearly works. We hit all the right beats – we are presented with a mysterious situation, then we spool back and we get new information which at once clarifies and challenges. We learn who the strange man was, but also learn that he is not who we expect. It’s actually pretty … pretty okay? For about nine minutes.
Then we get the (narratively) next and (diegetically) previous part of the story. We see our acid-scarred stranger (actually a policeman) facing off against the suspected serial killer who we know from the news report from narratively-earlier-diegetically-later will be killed in this very confrontation. The suspect is obviously distressed, and obviously about as dangerous as a raspberry muffin. Never the less, when he reaches into his pocket for his phone, the police snipers who … who apparently always come along when they pick up suspects in high profile cases? I guess? Anyway, the police snipers shoot him dead. Then we cut to the investigating officers celebrating the end of their serial killer hunt because the guy they shot was definitely the right guy and definitely not an unarmed mentally ill man who was set up by the real killer, while Broody McScarredface sits in a corner and angsts to his much younger, much more attractive, much more female partner who he is obviously banging and who is obviously going to turn out to have had a tragic and abusive backstory that he is uneasy because he’s not sure that the unarmed and clearly harmless mentally ill man they just gunned down for no reason was actually the cold, calculating serial killer they were after. She tries to reassure him, but he’s all “no, I’m sure we MISSED SOMETHING, probably in the PAST back during all the OTHER STUFF THAT HAPPENED which you’re TOTALLY GOING TO SEE IN FUTURE EPISODES.”
Indeed there’s a lot of setting-up-its-theme in episode one (as well there might be). There’s a scene about halfway through were Gloomy McAcidburns looks through his grimy, grimdark car window at one of those guys who non-consensually wash windscreens at traffic lights and pontificates about how if we could just understand that guy’s past and what had brought him to his current situation, everything would be much better and the police would be better at policing and all that. This speech, in which Herr Whiny von Bangshispartner notices that the windscreen-washer is probably also a heroin addict, and wonders what led to his addiction, pretty much sums up what’s wrong with the narrative structure of Rellik.
This is going to need a new subheading.
Memento and Her Sisters
The classic told-backwards story is Memento, but the “six days earlier” episode is actually kind of a staple of serial fiction, both drama and comedy. It usually works, but I think the ingredients that make it work aren’t present (and to an extent can’t be present) in Rellik.
In both Memento and the six-days-earlier story the hook is “how did we get here”. It relies on the story opening with a scenario sufficiently outlandish that the audience genuinely wants to watch on to find out what the hell is going on and how it could possibly make sense. In Memento the entire setup is bizarre, with Guy Pearce’s character (Leonard) – all tattoos and mantras and poorly understood medical conditions – presenting a mystery for us to solve in and of himself. We start with Leonard shooting Teddy and Teddy taunting him with how little he knows about himself, and the film invites us to find out why Leonard shoots Teddy, and what Teddy was talking about. In the “six days earlier” episode of an established series, we will either open with something self-consciously wacky (if the series is comedic) or with a scene in which characters we already know well are behaving in a way we know to be out of character. And again, we will want to know how we got there.
Rellik offers us neither of those hooks. It is an original series, with no establishing framework to let us know what the characters’ lives were like before the events that we are now watching play out, so when Scarsy O’Sadface starts acting in a grossly unprofessional way (abducting and intimidating witnesses, breaking into houses without a warrant, banging his hot partner) we aren’t intrigued about how he got to where he is, we just assume that he was always kind of a shitty cop. As for the other style of backwards story hook, the scenario so strange that you really want to find out what led up to it, well the show could have offered us that. But it didn’t. After the first scene, in which we learn that the strange scarred man is a policeman hunting an acid-themed serial killer, there isn’t really any intrigue left. When we see the confrontation that leads to the obviously innocent suspect getting shot dead, we aren’t left wondering what could possibly have brought us to this point. Because while it’s sad and violent, it’s a completely pedestrian scenario. The police think this guy is a dangerous serial killer, a firearms officer misinterprets a non-threatening gesture as a violent one, and a guy gets shot. We really can fill in the blanks for ourselves.
In a good non-chronological narrative, the diegetically-earlier-narratively-later scenes provide information and context that genuinely illuminates the diegetically-later-narratively-earlier scenes. We understand better why a character reacts a particular way in a particular situation because we understand more about their past experiences; a question that has hitherto troubled us is resolved with a revelation that is surprising but satisfying. The thing is, these kinds of narratives are much harder to put together than it seems, and are probably even harder to put together if you restrict yourself to what you might call a hard reverse structure (that is, strictly showing events backwards, rather than doing as – say – Memento does and playing a portion of the narrative forwards in order to provide context, or embedding the story within a wider series that follows a more conventional chronology).
Every time Rellik spools backwards, we find out a bit more about either the main story about the acid killer, or one of the show’s rather-too-many, rather-too-inconsequential side plots. The problem is that the things we find out are almost always either completely unsurprising, or pointlessly out of left field. Often within the same plotline.
So for example in the first episode, we start (after the grave scene) with Detective Philanderer del Manpain facing off against the obviously completely innocent suspect, who gets shot. The (narratively) next scene shows the events that led up to the confrontation. Which were “they said they had evidence that the guy was a serial killer” and “they thought he had a gun”. Which – um – is sort of what I’d assume the events leading up to that confrontation were. So all that’s happened is that a completely straightforward story about the police incorrectly identifying an unarmed and innocent man as a dangerous multiple murderer gets told in an unhelpfully nontraditional order, for no actual benefit.
Then at the end of the episode we discover that the reason that there was evidence linking Obviously Innocent Guy to the murder was because he had actually committed the murder, but that he had been forced to do it at gunpoint by a mysterious shadowy figure who, by the way, also filmed the whole thing for some reason? And then somebody, possibly innocent guy or possibly somebody else, came back to the crime scene and took the SD card out of the camera on which mysterious spooky person inexplicably filmed the murder they forced somebody else to do, and we are left to draw the inference that this is the SD card that Inspector Mopesalot finds in the first scene. But we also know that whatever consequences may come about as a result of the existence of that SD card, they’re going to have to happen (diegetically) after the events of the first episode, and therefore that they will on no account ever come up over the course of the series. And not only will everything else that happens in the series precede this scene, but we will be following Detective Protagonist, not Obviously Innocent Guy, and we know that Detective Protagonist did not know about this event, or presumably any of the interactions between innocent guy and mysterious spooky individual that led up to it.
Watching Rellik is basically watching an aggressively miserable detective be bad at his job, in reverse chronological order.
The faint praise with which Rellik is often damned is that maintaining a sense of mystery and tension in a story when you already know how that story will end is sufficiently difficult that, like a dog walking on its hind legs, we should be impressed not that it is done well, but that it is done at all.
Which would be a fair point, if it weren’t for the existence of Columbo.
Columbo ran for ten seasons spanning three decades, kept a loyal audience, and won 13 Emmys despite the fact that it was a detective show whose whole gimmick was that you actually saw who committed the murder in the opening scene.
There’s a sort of received wisdom that “playing along at home” is a big part of the appeal of detective fiction, and it’s probably half true – Agatha Christie notoriously had to make her plots ever more byzantine (or, less charitably, absurd) in order to meet the demands of an audience who wanted ever more baffling cases to sink their teeth into. But for a lot of readers (and even more so for a lot of viewers) it’s much less important than it seems. We usually aren’t out to beat the detective – that’s a competition in which neither side can really play fair, since the detective can easily withhold information from the audience (as Holmes does), while the audience can access metatextual clues that the detective can’t (in at lest 90% of TV detective shows, the killer is the first person they interview who isn’t a suspect). In fact perhaps a better way to put it is that playing along at home is a big part of the appeal of detective fiction, but that the key word is “along” – we aren’t trying to one-up the detective, or to shortcut the investigation with our real-world knowledge, we’re trying to spot the same clues the detective spots, and to work out how the detective will put them together. The detective is one part guide, one part surrogate.
That’s why Columbo remains fun to watch even though you already know who the killer is. You aren’t trying to guess who the murderer is, you’re trying to guess how Columbo will work out who the murderer is, or how he will trap the murderer into giving themselves away.
This is also part of what makes Rellik so unsatisfying. You can’t follow the case alongside Detectives Scaryface and Sexypants, because you’re following their investigation backwards, so as you come to understand more about the situation, they come to understand less of it.
Although actually, it’s even worse than that. As the show progresses (narratively) forward, you learn more about the investigation that led to the final confrontation with Obviously Innocent Guy, and while much of what you learn would never have been known to the police (suspects are also viewpoint characters, so you get to concretely find out who carried out at least two killings by episode four) much of it would have. In a successful non-linear narrative, the narratively early scenes are intriguing but don’t make much sense, and the narratively late scenes provide much-needed context that answers the questions you previously had about the beginning. Rillek does almost the opposite. The opening is completely comprehensible – botched arrest leads to death of suspect who is suspected for perfectly sensible reasons. But as the story progresses and we discover what happened (diegetically) earlier in the investigation, it makes less sense rather than more that Detective Badatpolicework would ever have considered Obviously Innocent Guy a viable suspect.
When we see the confrontation it is a little bit implausible that the police would think Obviously Innocent Guy was a threat. He’s tiny, twitchy, and terrified (to be fair, frightened men with guns are dangerous, but he also had no visible weapon). Just over the course of that first episode, it only gets less plausible. We hear that they have “incontrovertible evidence” that he’s the killer, but that “incontrovertible evidence” is “fingerprints at the crime scene”. And yes, on TV fingerprints are basically magic but even if we ignore the fact that fingerprints are unreliable and assume that they really do constitute evidence that he was 100% definitely at the scene, that’s not at all the same as evidence that he was 100% definitely responsible for that and a half-dozen other murders. Certainly that and an unconfirmed report of a gunshot don’t seem to be undeniable evidence that Obviously Innocent Guy is so definitely guilty and dangerous as to warrant the full sniper treatment.
Then we go a bit further back, and we discover that less than twenty hours before Obviously Innocent Guy gets tragically shot dead by plot snipers, Detective Offtherails had not only never heard of him, but was firmly convinced that the killer was somebody completely different. Like, completely different. As in Obviously Innocent Guy is a skinny white guy with a ratty beard and a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and the previous suspect was a black woman with acid scars of her own and a previous conviction for melting a guy’s face off.
I mean, I don’t want to be essentialist or anything, but are we really expected to invest in a detective who had so little idea about who the killer was that he thought it was equally likely for them to be a black woman in her twenties or a white man in his forties? I mean I’m sure Criminal Minds wasn’t 100% accurate but surely he had some kind of profile? Surely he had narrowed the pool of suspects down at least a little bit? I mean from what we can tell, Detective Seriouslywhydosomanyhotwomenwanttobonethisguy was actually physically attacked by the real killer. I know it was a traumatic experience, but did he really come away from the encounter with “well it was probably either a man or a woman and might have had some kind of height or weight or possibly both.” I mean if we’d got to episode four and discovered that Gabriel (sorry, that’s his real name, I should have mentioned that earlier) spent a week convinced that the acid killer was actually forty squirrels in a trenchcoat, I would not be surprised at all.
In episode two we discover that at one point a laptop, which was vital evidence in the investigation, was destroyed in a mysterious fire inside a police evidence room. He takes this as evidence that Acid Scars Woman is definitely the killer, even though he has no indication that she would have any ability whatsoever to start a fire inside a secure police station. She’s a resolutely working class woman with severe mental health issues and seemingly no friends, family, contacts or support network, why does he think that she’s capable of pulling off this mafia-boss level evidence tampering? Why, when Obviously Innocent Guy shows up and wipes Acid Scars Woman off of his mental radar entirely, does he once again not think to ask himself “would this man have been capable of destroying evidence in police custody?”
Part of the pleasure of a mystery is following the detective’s reasoning. This is somewhat difficult in Rellik, because the detective seems to actually be incapable of following his own.
Mysteries, Thrillers, and Intrigue
Of course you could reasonably argue that Rellik doesn’t have to function as a mystery because it’s really more of a thriller. It’s not about finding out who the acid killer is, it’s about exciting action scenes, sexy sex scenes (in theory, although basically Gabriel and his partner spend a lot of time having what I’ve taken to calling “Sad Police Sex”) and emotionally charged argument scenes.
Which would be fine. But none of that benefits from being shot in reverse order.
I don’t want to overgeneralise, but I find it very hard to think of any reason to shoot a story backwards except to specifically preserve a sense of mystery. Detective fiction is a broad genre, and sometimes a story can be unfairly maligned because a reviewer reads a thriller as if it were a mystery or a whodunnit as if it were an action adventure. Rellik doesn’t stand up as a mystery because nothing about its setup is remotely mysterious – we know the moment we see Gabriel’s acid scars that he will have got them in a confrontation with the acid killer (seriously the clue is in the name), we know the moment we see Obviously Innocent Guy get shot in the chest that he’s not the real murderer, we know the moment Gabriel and his wife argue about his affair, and he talks about the “terrible thing” his wife did and how she “lied to him” that he’s not his daughter’s real father. So when these things come out, it isn’t a shock or a surprise, it’s just the confirmation of something we already know. So the only tension that can remain is from wondering what the consequences of these events might be, but we also know that we aren’t going to see the consequences of the events, or that we have already seen them, because the show is telling us its story backwards, even though the kind of story it is telling us is the kind of story that in no way benefits from being told backwards.
The show’s many subplots are a good example of this. Several times an episode we’ll have a scene of one of the members of Gabriel’s team doing something unrelated to the investigation – announcing an engagement, being a victim of homophobic bullying, finding a dead pig in their house, something like that. Then later in the episode we will see something that gives more context to the event, which might change our understanding of it, or might not, but either way it won’t make much difference because we already know that the (narratively) first time we were introduced to that plotline is the (diegetically) last time it will come up, so we know that there will be no consequences.
For example, in episode two we have three little vignettes about the relationship between one of the detectives and the receptionist in the police station. In scene one the detective reveals that she and the receptionist are engaged (and do you see, the detective is the woman and the receptionist is the man, take that your hidebound expectations), saying that she “wasn’t supposed to make a scene” but felt she had to. Then we see the receptionist quietly asking her to marry him in the canteen, saying he “doesn’t want to make a scene”. Then, shock twist, we see the receptionist telling a colleague that he’s going to dump the detective but is worried that she’ll “make a scene”, and then just as he’s about to do it, she tells him she’s pregnant. And that’s the last we see of that arc. And okay, it’s sort of an alright story. But not only did that story not benefit from being told backwards, the show didn’t particularly benefit from its being told at all.
Basically the whole thing is presented in a very impressionistic way, which seems to be the only way that it can cope with its framing device. But this makes everything feel very disconnected and consequenceless. Which is sort of a problem for a narrative that’s supposed to be about the ultimate causes of things.
Episode three opens with the protagonist dragging his unconscious daughter out of a skeevy nightclub. Now we already know that she is fine, because we have seen her in (narratively) earlier episodes. We also pretty much know that she was in the nightclub voluntarily, because in those episodes she has been grounded for this specific act of teenage rebellion. We even know, or at least strongly suspect that she is specifically acting out because she has found out about her father’s affair with his partner. So straight from the off we know why she’s there, how she got there, how she got out, and that she’ll definitely be fine. This makes the rest of the episode, in which we see Gabriel searching for his missing daughter, and find out that yes, she heard her parents arguing about her father’s affair and yes, that was what made her go out and do the bad drugs at the bad drugs party, feel spectacularly pointless. There’s no tension, because we already know how it is going to end, and there is no mystery, because we already know how it began. All the show can do is fill in blanks that the audience has already filled in for itself.
Rellik has a fascinating premise. It’s just that the show doesn’t seem to have thought through the way that premise would impact its narrative. I don’t think it’s as simple as just taking a regular thriller plot and putting the scenes in reverse order (that would probably have been more interesting, but much harder to follow). Or rather, I think within individual episodes, that seems to be what’s happening (which is why episode three feels so hollow – it seems to be taking a perfectly satisfying story about Gabriel’s daughter finding out about his affair and endangering herself as a consequence, and putting it into reverse order in a way that makes it actively less engaging) but the individual episodes seem to have the opposite issue – they feel like they were only ever imagined in reverse order, with very little indication that, for example, the first episode (the one with the death of Obviously Innocent Guy) was written with the awareness that Gabriel should know about all of the things that would happen in narratively-later-diegetically-earlier episodes.
In a this sense, the show does strangely manage to produce a satisfying sense of progression. As we get closer to the end of the series, Gabriel actually seems to have a better handle on the mystery than he did in previous episodes, despite the fact that he should actually know less. I’ve only watched the first three episodes so far, but our back-in-time story does seem to be building to a climactic confrontation with the real killer. The fact that this will essentially frame everything Gabriel did afterwards as a massive failure of judgement with fatal consequences might even wind up being quite cool – after all he is clearly traumatised by his experience and probably isn’t thinking straight, and I can almost get behind that as a dark central irony.
But only almost.
And while I’ve written well over 4000 words about the show now, I suspect that there is little I can say about Rellik that sums it up better than this: it’s a show about a policeman hunting a killer, told backwards, and the title is the word “killer” spelled backwards. And the show is exactly like you would expect that show to be.