Rebecca “Rebel” Knight (Danielle Moné Truitt), in the grand tradition of hardboiled private investigators, is an ex-cop with a past — a pro who got jaded because of one bad case, one tough story, one loss that was too much to handle. She can take on a room of guys twice her size armed with just her nightstick; she can sling innuendo-laced insults in the face of sexist, racist boors. But she can’t protect her brother from being killed by the same cops she works with — including her former partner and onetime lover, who fires the first shot.
“Rebel” is a pulp detective story set in modern-day Oakland that hands the role of brooding private eye to a black woman. In its premise, it is brilliant; the random and awful violence that characterizes the genre is not out of place in Rebel Knight’s own life — and of course her life is punctuated by the lover who got away, the trusty sidekick who tags along on stakeouts, and the police chief with a soft spot for Rebel that he tries to hide.
In execution, unfortunately, “Rebel” is less brilliant. The 120-minute pilot released to critics is bloated and sometimes melodramatic; most of it is spent waiting for the inevitable to happen — for the good stuff to start. In most television dramas about a fascinating central character, the painful backstory would be doled out in fits and starts throughout the first season (consider the reveal that Don Draper is really Dick Whitman). But “Rebel” — which was originally conceived of as a movie before being quickly upgraded to series status by BET — opts to tell the origin story first. This wouldn’t be so bad if that origin story weren’t so poorly rendered.
In the show’s defense, this is weighty material that is hard to do right. The pilot tells the harrowing tale of how Rebel’s younger brother Malik (Mikelen Walker) was shot to death in front of her, by her colleagues on the police force. One of the shooters — the one who shoots first, actually — was her former partner and sometime lover, Mack (Brandon Quinn). This leads Rebel to quit the force, avoiding both the internal affairs investigation that tries to pin blame on her and the amassing Black Lives Matter protestors that camp out at her house. She leans into her grief, producing poetry and tweaking the police whenever she can; because it comes easy, she starts taking cases from wealthy connections she made while working as a cop.
But “Rebel” struggles to portray its protagonist as a woman that evolves, mostly because it is more interested in who Rebel Knight becomes, not who she is at the beginning. From the first frame, Rebel is hardboiled and bada–; at her brother’s funeral, which is the scene directly following his death, she is oddly poised in killer shades and a maxi dress. She steps out of the service only to trade flirtatious barbs with old flame TJ (Clifford “Method Man” Smith). For all that this is obviously a tragedy, “Rebel” doesn’t make it feel like a tragedy.
Even where the show disappoints, it’s hard to deny the skill of director John Singleton, who was the first black director nominated for an Oscar back in 1991. Last year, he directed “The Race Card,” the Johnnie Cochran-centric episode of FX”s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”; he’s skilled at bringing an intimacy to narratives about weighty ideological issues. “Rebel,” all else aside, is a kinetic, practiced story to watch, with a loving touch for its action sequences and heart-eyes for its steamy sex scenes. (Method Man uses a lot of tongue, apparently.) The characters are all real people, and Oakland feels like a real place they live in; these are not small accomplishments.
But the 120-minute pilot just focuses on the wrong things. “Rebel” could be snappy and fun, playing Singleton’s kineticism and Moné Truitt’s easy bravado off of the slightly melodramatic backstory. Detective procedurals are made for the serialized form; with tighter storytelling, Rebel could be one of the most enjoyable P.I.s to watch, one that combines an appealing and beautiful vulnerability with a hard-as-nails approach to love and life that leaves the audience breathless. The costars are great, too — specifically the always wonderful Giancarlo Esposito, as Rebel’s long-suffering police chief, and Angela Ko, who plays her best friend. But right now, the show is lost somewhere between filmic narrative and television serial.