‘Reacher’: Women Want What He’s Got, and Not Just the Beefcake

You may have felt the tremor: A jacked-up beast of a guy has wandered into TV Land, and his name is Reacher. Season 1 of the Amazon series that bears his name was a monster hit when it dropped in early 2022, and Season 2, which concludes on Jan. 19, appears to be even bigger, becoming Prime Video’s No. 1 title globally on its debut weekend. And the series is crushing it critically the way Reacher crushes a villain’s skull. As of early January, the new season had a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an 84 percent audience score — when do critics ever rate a brawny action show higher than the audience?

Everybody loves this “Reacher.”

And by everybody, the reviews seem to suggest, that mostly means every man.

A review in Paste Magazine offered this pithy summation: “I’m not saying it’s only for dudes, but I think we’re in safe territory saying it’s mostly for dudes.” And what dudes appear to like is minimal emoting and maximal fisticuffs, delivered by a mountain of muscle — a former Army investigator turned peripatetic crime-solver, who doesn’t waste time wringing his enormous, meaty hands over petty details like having a fixed abode or even a change of clothes.

But here’s the thing about “Reacher”: Women watch it, too. Sure, 58 percent of the viewers for Season 1 were male, according to Nielsen. Still, that leaves a rather large number of people who are not. Common wisdom when it comes to Jack Reacher’s popularity is that men want to be him and women want to be with him. But I’ll venture that some women want to be him, too. Or at least, they want some of his freedom.

Hatched by the writer Lee Child, Jack Reacher has anchored, since 1997, a series of best-selling novels that have long had a strong female readership — estimated in 2018 by their publisher, Penguin Random House, at around 60 percent. One of their biggest mainstream champions is a woman, the New York Times critic Janet Maslin. I have read about 20 of those novels, mostly in their natural habitats (flights, vacation rentals), and I’m proud to share a fandom with the British writer Antonia Fraser, who in a letter to The Guardian in 2022, wrote, “The thought that there is a new Jack Reacher to read in the evening makes the whole day whiz by happily.”

Now, the Amazon show, starring Alan Ritchson, finally offers a worthy screen adaptation. This is happy news after the two movies from the 2010s, which were derided for casting Tom Cruise as a guy described in one book as having “a six-pack like a cobbled city street, and a chest like a suit of N.F.L. armor, and biceps like basketballs, and subcutaneous fat like a Kleenex tissue.” Not only does Ritchson fit the physical requirements — which are so crucial to the character’s essence that they are not negotiable — but he also has a way with deadpan humor and is as light on his feet as a human the size of an industrial refrigerator can be.

Reacher appeals to men in general and fathers in particular because, as the TV critic Eric Deggans of NPR writes, he is “a character freed from all the pressures and responsibilities many dads face every day” — a fairly representative critical assessment, based on the many reviews I’ve read. “He has no wife, steady romantic partner, kids or family,” Deggans continues, “not even a mortgage, rent payment or full-time job.”

But I suspect that plenty of moms would welcome the opportunity to be freed from those demands as well. (And they are more likely than dads to be guilt-tripped for even entertaining the fantasy.) Reacher, who travels the country with nothing but a toothbrush, an A.T.M. card and the clothes on his back, does not have any responsibilities other than the ones he sets for himself. I’m not a mother, but I do have a spouse, a deskbound job and bills to pay, and I often find myself thinking, “I’ll have what he’s having.”

Consider the benefits: When Reacher needs a change of clothing, he simply buys something cheap wherever he happens to be. (Miraculously, he always finds his size, which appears to be InfinityXL, in local thrift or surplus stores.) In this season’s first episode, he spends $22 on a new outfit. Effortlessly landing a complete get-up on a two-figure budget is living the dream.

His diet is straightforward, too. For breakfast, it is always bacon and eggs. Otherwise, it’s a cheeseburger and fries, and he always scarfs down everything with great relish. Forgive me for thinking this sounds more satisfying, if only for a day, than picking at a “girl dinner” — especially since his eating habits miraculously translate to muscle instead of fat.

Maybe the single most enviable thing about Reacher from a woman’s perspective, though, is that he is never afraid. Dark alleyways and menacing strangers don’t faze him, and what woman does not envy that confidence? Often while silently, powerlessly stewing as some jerk harasses a woman in public, I have fantasized about walking up to him and, with just one withering stare, reducing him to a quaking puddle of fear.

Reacher can do that. And if that’s not enough, he can punch him into oblivion. For some of us, the transference is real.

It is undeniable that Reacher can come close to being a lone sociopath (though he tends to return rather than initiate violence, or at least to strike preemptively). But Child has cannily ensured that while Reacher wanders alone, he rarely operates alone, forcing his hero to act like a human and giving women other vicarious means to connect with him. Season 2 is very much a team story, as Reacher reconvenes with members of his army investigations unit, including Frances Neagley (Maria Sten). Her phobia about being touched might be one reason her relationship with Reacher is successfully platonic; they have the kind of committed friendship you rarely see women have with straight men in books or onscreen, something I find incredibly refreshing.

Reacher also is capable of being a thoughtful and attentive lover. In Season 1, he works with two local cops, played by Willa Fitzgerald and Malcolm Goodwin — you’ll have one guess which one he sleeps with. In Season 2, he and his former Army colleague Karla Dixon (Serinda Swan) consummate an attraction that was forbidden back when he was her boss. In both cases, as usual, he respectfully avoids a messy romantic entanglement, all while supplying some much-sought-after action between the sheets.

This side of beef has been tenderized for brief but meaningful flings. Believe it or not, a lot of women want those, too.

Because of course, there are fans who do, in fact, want to be with Reacher. Fair enough. For them, it’s worth noting that in one novel he is described as being so good in the sack that “The floor quivered. The hall door creaked and shuttered.” I’ll hazard a guess that if anything remotely resembling that scene ever makes it into a future season of “Reacher,” it might well be the rare thing that unites men and women, dads and moms, straight and gay, in a huge burst of happy laughter.

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