The “angry male” is not, as of current writing, high on the list of sympathetic figures in American culture. That’s fair enough—the fringes of that particular archetype haven’t covered themselves in glory of late (or ever), and the cultural side-eye is probably a long time coming. And yet, to be a living human being with a functioning brain in this country is to be constantly mad, and a good chunk of us are dudes. Which leads to the big question: Is there a safe artistic outlet for the furious man?
If there is (jury’s still out), it has to be the new Prime Video series Reacher, based on the wildly successful Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child. Full disclosure, I have not read the Reacher books, but I know a lot of people who have, I’ve read about them (this essay was good fun), and I get the gist: There’s a man who can kill anyone, he’s a good guy, but he’s vicious enough to satisfy all our dark revenge fantasies. (In fact, Child has admitted that the inspiration for creating this character was his own anger about being let go from a job.) I even saw one of the Reacher movies with Tom Cruise, though if you’re around the Reacher discourse at all, you quickly learn that one of the benefits of the TV show is that unlike Cruise, this Reacher (Alan Ritchson) is appropriately huge. That is a big deal for the angry dude viewer, because along with all the satisfying violence, we want that sweet mix of rock-like stoicism mixed with constant intimidation.
Thus semi-informed, I watched Amazon’s Reacher, and let me tell you, it’s objectively hilarious. This is pure, unfiltered wish fulfillment for men from moment one, and it never stops. (None of this is to say it can’t be enjoyed by women, by the way, or that they can’t get the same visceral thrills, but let’s be honest: for pure emotional indulgence, this is the dude’s equivalent of a Hallmark Christmas movie.) Every time Reacher withers someone with a glance, bashes a skull, or drops a witty one-liner before absolutely wrecking someone’s face, it sings to the part of us that sulk around this world imagining what we might do to our worst enemies. It’s slightly alarming this way, actually; it’s one thing to understand that the latent anger in our brains sometimes spills into vivid, violent fantasy, but it’s quite another to have this truth exploited in a show that lets us live vicariously through the man we’d love to hulk into when the situation called for it.
But if this is escapism, with the violence romanticized and stripped of its dread and the emotions surface deep at best, I have to tell you, it’s pretty &%$ing well done! If you’re into this kind of thing, it’s not going to take you long to finish the whole season. This is a show that is not interested in screwing around. Does it seem far-fetched to you that after being arrested for murder, Reacher essentially becomes part of the police force within 12 hours, with an apparent to do whatever the hell he wants? Does it seem strange that no matter where he goes, someone’s always trying to mess with him, spawning reluctant but also very enthusiastic counter-violence? This show does not care. It won’t even bother to explain, and for me, that’s admirable. If you’re about to shoot heroin, it’s not going to make the heroin better if the dealer recites a long poem about how great heroin is. You just want that heroin.
What’s truly admirable, in the first part of the season at least, is that Reacher doesn’t even bother with sex. You could argue that the only thing competing with fantasies of violent revenge in your prototypical angry dude is the fantasy of sleeping with anyone at any time, but the writers seem to realize that unlike a good, solid punch to the face, sex is a complicating factor, and it would end up broadening the extremely narrow range of emotional landscape they want to explore. Screw that. If you want depictions of sex, you know where to get them. We’re here for violence, and we’re here for revenge. It’s enough to know that the women who matter want to sleep with Reacher; to consummate it would be a faux pas. This samurai is chaste. I have not yet finished the season (that will happen tonight), but I will be gravely disappointed if Reacher gives in to the human passions.
Nor does the show delve into politics. Roughly 99% of Reacher-adjacent male action heroes in books are hyper-conservative wackos who spend their non-killing time ranting about liberals. There’s a good reason why people like Bill O’Reilly and Ben Shapiro moonlight as bad fiction writers; this kind of wish fulfillment has a distinctly right-wing vibe to it, usually. But, perhaps because Child is British, that element is missing here, and thank god. Again, the writers show an unerring instinct for not spoiling the broth.
What they do, they do very well. Ritchsona is great beyond just being a tank, and realistically captures the wryness that transforms Reacher from a one-dimensional character into a one-and-a-half dimensional character. By turns, he conveys some vague sense of humor, pain, and buried rage, but just enough to make it clear he’s more than a dumb jock, and not so much that you’ll ever have to think very hard. By rule, every other character in the show either has to be a villain or a wisecrackin’ ally who secretly sees Reacher as a living god (after the requisite 13 seconds of skepticism, of course), and they all stay in their lanes. The formula is in place, and absolutely nobody tries to do more than they should.
Now, let’s ask another question: is it good that it’s good? Is this a nice guilty pleasure, or does it encourage the worst impulses of the angry dude? As someone who tries to keep track of how his own emotional barometer is influenced by TV—am I more of a dick after watching Veep, or more aggressive after The Sopranos?—I tried to gauge my own emotions after binging Reacher. The result? I don’t think I slip into a deep state of toxic masculinity, at least as far as I can tell. My theory is that the character is simply too ridiculous, the plot lines too unrealistic, the attempts to engage with real human psychology too nonexistent, for any of this to bleed into real life. In fact, though I hesitate to say this with any uncertainty, I think there may be a salutary benefit to all this itch-scratching. That person you wouldn’t mind seeing get hit by a truck? You may want to see them hit by a truck slightly less after watching this. Maybe.
That might also be pseudoscience, so please don’t quote me. Whatever the case, Reacher is a home run, and I hope they make 50 seasons. In real life, if most angry dudes attempted anything like the feats pulled off by our new hero, we’d end up in the ER with a knife stuck accidentally in our groins, or something. But to live vicariously through Ritchson’s Reacher is to fly with the darker angels of our nature, to achieve the justice that is not available to us on planet Earth, and to engage indirectly in wholesome, gruesome violence against the evil all around us. We will grow fatter, and more stressed, and the world will cow us into submission, but when the kids are in bed and the lights go down, Jack Reacher never changes.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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