'Outcast': TV Review

Niko Tavernise (c)2015/FOX International Studios
Nothing to levitate over.
6/3/2016

'The Walking Dead' creator Robert Kirkman brings familiar exorcisms and flimsy small-town drama to Cinemax in his new series starring Patrick Fugit.

Episodic television is good at taking things that are exceptional and, through weekly repetition, making them familiar and even dull.

It's like how in real life, the capturing of one serial killer is the emotional and momentous end of a nightmare that probably engulfed a region for years, but on Criminal Minds, the same darned team of FBI investigators has stopped 200+ active serial killers in the past decade and the feat is barely worth a shrug.

Or take exorcisms. I have to assume that demons probably only possess people a few times a year and that actual priest-on-dybbuk interventions, the whole "Power of Christ compels you!" thing, are a big deal. Your average run-of-the-mill clergyman might go a lifetime interacting only with low-level incubi or succubi and might never interact with Lucifer himself.

Television is now bound and determined to take all of the joy and excitement out of body-contorting, Revelations-spewing, guttural-voiced possessions and the doubt-filled, poorly shaven men of the cloth who fight them. I get that our current election cycle is fulfilling all manner of apocalyptic prophesies, but with Showtime's superb Penny Dreadful, the short-lived Damien, the tangentially related Preacher, the Conjuring films and Fox's upcoming The Exorcist, this is an odd thing to be nearing the point of fatigue.

Enter Cinemax's new drama series Outcast, based on the Skybound/Image Comics series from Robert Kirkman and Paul Azaceta, which may actually be about exorcism fatigue, at least on a subtextual level. Developed for premium cable by Kirkman, Outcast is another of the Walking Dead co-creator's meditations on how supernatural occurrences may be scary, but nothing is scarier than the darkness lurking in the hearts of regular people. But amidst Kirkman's banality-of-evil fixation is the potential for very real banality, and after four episodes sent to critics, Outcast has already fallen frequent victim to the wheel-spinning and superficial characters that have often bogged down lesser moments of The Walking Dead and nearly every moment of Fear the Walking Dead. Directed with some flair by Adam Wingard (The Guest), the Outcast pilot has some promise, but subsequent episodes fail to maintain that momentum.

Patrick Fugit stars as Kyle Barnes, now living as an unkempt shut-in in his childhood home of Rome, West Virginia. Kyle is haunting by traumas in both his recent and distant past. When a local boy begins doing the sort of freaky things that normally relate to demonic possession, it attracts the interest of Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister), as well as Kyle, who sees similarities to what happened with his abusive mother. Reverend Anderson has faith, but limited practical aptitude with the freeing of rogue spirits, while Kyle has aptitude, but no faith. It's got all the makings of a buddy exorcism procedural, plus it turns out that either Rome is a hub for possessions or else Kirkman's point is that all small working-class towns harbor secrets of abuse, loneliness and misery that could blur together with a collective supernatural incursion, which will come as profound if you've never read a Stephen King book.

The pilot for Outcast hits on certain blunt, visceral levels. Once you have a small child munching on his fingers and licking bug guts off the walls, which happens in the opening minutes, and a grown man having flashbacks to his terrifying youth every time he stares off into space, you know you're hiking familiar but disturbing terrain. You've seen every outstretched crucifix and heard every preternaturally evil threat before, but Wingard executes the clichés effectively and also does well breathing gloomy, soul-sucking life into the dead-end community of Rome (played by South Carolina locations). It's when subsequent episodes descend into exorcism-every-other-week structuring that the show becomes less engaging, even if you can see how Kirkman and company are trying to show how domestic violence, sexual indiscretions and elder abuse could mask or be masked by tropes we recognize from horror.

It's a blending of literal and metaphorical horror that you can sense Outcast striving for, but not quite balancing in the early episodes. When the focus is on Kyle and Reverend Anderson, the action is repetitive and narrative information is being doled out at a laborious pace. When the focus is on the townspeople, there are believably weathered performances and interactions, but it doesn't feel interesting or original enough to sustain. When folks are exorcizing, you miss the character work. When you're watching the character work, you feel like the show is itching for some limb-twisting and speaking in tongues.

The pilot, for example, is heavy on the supernatural, but the reason the episode actually works is the surprising humor and human emotion it draws from the strained sibling relationship between Kyle and guidance counselor Megan (an excellent Wrenn Schmidt), whose family took Kyle in after whatever awful thing happened with his mother. That's followed by a second episode featuring a lot of people talking about what happened in that first episode, a lot of flimsy relationship-building and very little hellacious mythology, delivering maybe a minute of plot in an episode that barely filled 44 minutes. Subsequent episodes continue the supernatural-natural alternating with Lee Tergesen playing a perfunctorily sadistic possessed cop in the third episode and then Scott Porter arriving as a man from Kyle and Megan's murky past. The Kyle-Megan interactions remain the show's highlight, but almost never resurface after the pilot, as more time is spent on Megan's marriage to schlubby-but-decent cop Mark (David Denman) and Kyle sitting in cars with Reverend Anderson.

Fugit commits fully and admirably to his character's descent, and with the aid of a bushy beard and flashbacks to halcyon clean-shaven days he breaks free from the baby-faced youth that has been his calling card since his career-defining turn in Almost Famous. The relationship with Megan is nice because there are no romantic undertones and it's full of bickering and loving, familial judging that feel real. Instead, more time is spent on the interactions with Kyle and Reverend Anderson, which don't feel real or natural at all, despite an alleged shared past. Life on Mars star Glenister's attempts at a regional American accent aren't distractingly bad, but the wait for his character to become distinctive in any way is ongoing. Reg E. Cathey's effortless authority and always pleasurable sonorous tones have me curious to learn more about his local police chief, but Brent Spiner as Conspicuously Enigmatic Man With Hat is almost laughably opaque.

Audiences have forgiven The Walking Dead many times for detours into "It's not the zombies, but the soulless men that will end us" noodling, so there's no reason to think there won't be similar patience with Outcast. But the exorcism-by-the-numbers pilot here can't compete with Frank Darabont and Greg Nicotero's attention-grabbing work on the Walking Dead pilot, which surely engendered a lot of that good faith. Outcast might be trying to make its mark with a more even split of supernatural and coal-country mundane, but doing two challenging things at once is less remarkable if you aren't immediately doing either of them especially well.

 

Cast: Patrick Fugit, Philip Glenister, Wrenn Schmidt, David Denman, Reg E. Cathey
Creator: Robert Kirkman
Airs: Fridays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Cinemax)

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