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On Reacher, the T-Shirts Tell a Secret Story

How the show's costume design subtly influences our experience.
  • Alan Ritchson in Reacher (Screengrab: Prime Video)
    Alan Ritchson in Reacher (Screengrab: Prime Video)

    For a certain type of music nerd, police officer Roscoe Conklin (Willa Fitzgerald) proves her excellence in the fifth episode of Reacher. Up to that point in Prime Video's deliriously entertaining crime drama, she's demonstrated that she's plenty smart, capable, and tough, but in episode five, she reveals she also has exquisite taste. That's when she wears a t-shirt for Cowboy Junkies, the melancholy band of the 80s and 90s. The fact that the shirt is from their 1989 tour suggests she's a diehard fan and, thus, an alt-rock expert.

    "It would've been different if she'd been wearing a Motley Crue t-shirt, right?" says Abram Waterhouse, the show's costume designer. "You would've felt very differently about her."

    Willa Fitzgerald supports alt-rock music (Screen: Prime Video)

    He's right, of course. In a contemporary television show, "casual clothes" are never actually casual. Every t-shirt, sneaker, and pair of jeans is chosen for a specific reason. "As designers, we curate," says Waterhouse, who also designed three seasons of Dexter and earned an Emmy nomination for his work on the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. "There are seven million t-shirts in the world, but we need to find the one that says all the right things."

    Asked what a t-shirt needs to say, he explains, "You have to think, 'This t-shirt can signal so much about this character.' We don't want to give too much away, but we want to give some insight as to who they are and why they're wearing it. And it's got to give us a visual that we could be interested in for the picture we're creating."

    Later in episode five, for instance, when Jack Reacher (Alan Ritchson) meets up with his old army buddy Neagley (Maria Sten), she sports a t-shirt with a drawing of an El Camino on it and the words "El Camino" printed in block letters. The shirt is black and grey, which pops against the olive green of her jacket and the bright green foliage of the park she's strolling through. That visual contrast pulls attention to her face. The shirt also suggests she's a jokester with a taste for ironic humor.

    Alan Ritchson and Maria Sten (Screengrab: Prime Video)

    But the most notable shirt of the entire season arrives at the top of episode seven. Reacher has just finished beating the crap out of a bad guy in Manhattan, and must immediately get on a plane, Since his clothes are covered in blood, he needs a new outfit, and apparently all he can find is a shirt that says "My Kids Went to NY And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt."

    It's a piece of clothing that works on several levels at once. As Waterhouse notes, "This is about as far away from Reacher's actual personality as you can get. It's a moment of comedy, but it's also a moment of clarity. It's a signal that something huge happened, because otherwise why would he be wearing this thing?"

    Indeed, if Reacher had just changed into another of his customary black shirts, it would've undercut the importance of that fight, which has major implications for the plot. "It would've just been a continuation of the status quo without any indication that something insane happened," Waterhouse says.

    Initially he'd planned to use a shirt with the classic "I [Heart] NY" logo on it, but the rights to that image were too expensive. Instead, he and his team created the design that wound up in the show. Sometimes, even when your characters are wearing everyday clothing, the only way to get what you need is to make it yourself.

    That's also what happened with the uniforms the cops wear in Margrave, the fictional Georgia town where most of Reacher takes place. Those pieces had to be specially designed to suit the color palette the producers and directors wanted for the overall series. "The uniforms don't seem like much," Waterhouse says. "They're brown and beige. But it isn't just brown and beige. It took us many variations of browns and beiges to get the right combination, and I think they look like a very convincing small-town police uniform."

    The Margrave cops in brown and beige (Screengrab: Prime Video)

    Ironically, often the best sign the costumes are working is when we don't even notice them. If we immediately accept that Neagley would wear an ironic shirt or that the Margrave officers would wear those uniforms, then the designs are supporting the storytelling.

    Waterhouse is comfortable with the relative invisibility of his work. After all, even when we don't consciously notice them, his designs still affect our experience of what we're watching. "I don't want it to be about the costumes," he says. "I want it to be about the story."

    The entire first season of Reacher is now streaming on Prime Video. Amazon recently ordered a second season, which is expected in 2023.

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    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Reacher, Amazon Prime Video, Abram Waterhouse, Alan Ritchson, Maria Sten, Willa Fitzgerald