The heist thriller series stays compelling even as it grows more typical.
Joe Petrus (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is a Black gay man living in a very white suburb in Washington. His neighbors whisper about how great he is when he drops off his soon-to-be stepchildren Frankie (Maria Nash) and Bud (Baeyen Hoffman) at school. However, when he applies for a permit to convert a long-abandoned hardware store on Main Street, he encounters racially charged suspicion from a cop on the beat and judgment from the town council. Both dress them up to various degrees in standard procedure and questions of propriety, but the message is clear: “You don’t belong here.”
It turns out they’re onto something, but for entirely the wrong reasons. Entrepreneur-in-love American Joe also happens to be British former organized crime heavy David Marking, who did “one last job” and actually walked away. He started a new life in the US and accidentally fell in love with Jules (Kevin Vidal). Unfortunately, the consequences of the job have finally started to catch up with him as members of his heist team begin to show up dead as Culprits opens.
Created by J Blakeson who handles the bulk of writing and directing, Culprits starts with the not-unseen but still clever premise that surviving life as an average joe may be more harrowing than life as a career criminal. It is at its best when the eight-episode series sticks with Joe trying to battle a war on multiple fronts. On the home front, he must juggle local prejudice and a politician he accidentally drags into a scandal. Internationally, he must keep an eye on the relatively far-off but increasingly impossible-to-ignore threat of a seemingly unstoppable assassin known as The Devil (Ned Dennehy) working through his former co-heisters.
The increasingly complex situations give Stewart-Jarrett a compelling range of harried beats to play. It also lets the script bristle with dark humor, such as when the politician’s thugs attempt to intimidate Joe. Our protagonist makes quick work of them while, essentially, providing them with dismissive performance reviews.
When Joe must finally give in and make his way to Europe, the show doesn’t fall apart. In some ways, it becomes even more traditionally exciting. However, the queasy balance of suburban prejudice, inflated political egos, and outright violent danger recedes to just the violence. However, the series brings in a raft of fascinating and disturbing characters to shore up the situation. The Specialist (Niamh Algar), the heist team’s true killer, stands out as a particular favorite. She presents as an unadulterated sociopath in the initial flashbacks. As the story progresses to the present day, though, she evolves into something stranger and more compelling.
Other standouts include Officer (Kirby), a con artist who can detect a lie as easily as she tells them; Greaseman (Tara Abboud), a safe breaker who increasingly embraces vengeance; and Dianne Harewood (Gemma Arterton), the mastermind who’s hiding a trickier motivation behind greed. Eddie Izzard also shows up as a late-in-the-game antagonist who nibbles at the scenery with exponentially increasing bites. Izzard’s Vincent Hawkes, the unholy merger of the clients who would use the services of Edward Norton’s “Jack” in Fight Club and Elon Musk with some measure of charisma, provides some late-inning zing.
From a stylistic standpoint, Culprits is competent, if not especially a standout. The costuming and set dressing are undeniably eye-catching. The masks employed in the big job are both comedic and garish, making them deeply unnerving. Joe’s wardrobe charts his evolution/devolution from criminal to suburban family guy and back again as legible but never overplayed. However, the actual execution of the action set pieces tends to only register as solid. They’re not dull, certainly, but they’re also probably the least compelling aspect of the show.
By the time Culprits arrives at its conclusion, it’s run out of tricks and surprises. Thankfully, the performances, with Stewart-Jarrett as the lynchpin, keep it on its feet for the sentimental, predictable denouement. It isn’t at its best by the time it reaches the end, but the journey is more than worth it.
Culprits cracks the safe on Hulu December 8.