'Outsiders': TV Review
WGN America's new drama features ATV-jousting hill folk and lots of scruffiness.
The year is young, but it's hard to imagine any 2016 show topping WGA America's new drama Outsiders for overall scruffiness. Oh sure, Game of Thrones and Vikings might compete, and there's always a chance Kurt Sutter could accelerate production on something, but when it comes to matted beards, greasy knotted hair and a pervasive sense of rank aroma and questionable hygiene, this story of Appalachian hill people fighting off coal companies and the establishment for their patch of ancestral land packs a punch.
Of course, not every viewer watches TV looking for exhibitions of tonsorial neglect. For everyone else, Outsiders premieres on Tuesday featuring decent performances sometimes lost in drama that feels like a discarded season of Justified or a peculiar Sons of Anarchy spinoff. But if the half-baked subcultural anthropology doesn't grab you, Outsiders starts slow but begins detonating little pockets of insanity in nearly every episode, proving that audacity without dramatic foundation can be amusing, if not necessarily good.
The Farrell clan — sounds like "feral," and that's not a coincidence — has resided in the hills of Kentucky for centuries. They live far off the grid, without Internet, television or a written language of any kind. They have their own leadership and their own code of laws and they only interact with the normals down below on occasional supply runs, which apparently don't involve currency. There have been tragedies when Farrells and the folks down below interact, so mostly they don't. The coal company has plans for that mountaintop, though, and they're determined to clear the Farrells out, either with the help of local cop Wade (Thomas M. Wright) or with their own resources. It shouldn't be surprising that they don't care much about squatters' rights.
Meanwhile, there's a-doin' transpirin' up in the hills. Lady Ray (Phyllis Somerville) has been the tribal ruler — they call them "Brenins" — for a long time, and her son Big Foster (David Morse) is anxious to take control. Very anxious. The clan is also in a bit of a tizzy because the long-absent Asa (Joe Anderson) has just returned after a sojourn down in the world, a highly uncommon occurrence. Asa's presence brings with it the threat of civilization — he learned to read while he was away and even acquired a driver's license — and also reignites a bit of a love triangle with Big Foster's son Lil Foster (Ryan Hurst) and feisty redhead G'Winveer (Gillian Alexy). Oh, and Asa's arrival may correspond with some sort of prophesy, so there are a lot of things in play for the Farrells, even without the intrusion of guys in suits.
Insular and isolated rural communities existing on the fringes of institutionalized society are fertile territory because they straddle a line between science fiction and uncomfortable reality. You can create an outside community and craft their cultural origins and behaviors in any way you want to. They have the limitless potential of aliens. But then you can look at the Bundy Militia in Oregon (and countless other less-publicized examples) and suddenly it isn't so alien at all.
Through five episodes, Outsiders creator Peter Mattei and showrunner Peter Tolan have been tentative when it comes to world-building for the Farrells. They — the Farrells, not the Peters -— wrestle and play music and make a powerful and legendary brand of moonshine. They have their Brenin and a council of elders to settle disputes. There's a native language they speak, mostly when toasting each other's health, but they've got at least four or five markedly different accents, which probably has to do with the mixture of Brits, Aussies and Americans in the cast. Their history and spiritual beliefs are fuzzy and their names come from an eclectic assortment of sources. I found myself clamoring for dozens of explanations, while characters whittled and fiddled and stuck feathers in their hair. And then suddenly characters started doing ATV jousting and at that point, it became clear that you're just supposed to accept that these bits and pieces all make sense and that ATV jousting is wacky and cool and as organic a way to solve discord as anything else, so you just have to go with it. Or you don't.
Outsiders finally has a rather goofy heart, wedged with questionable compatibility into a body that wants to be taken seriously. There are moments of almost cartoonish and gory violence right next to a town council meeting in which people give solemn pronouncements about the encroachment of industrial interests in the area followed by a poetry slam takeoff on "The Star Spangled Banner." There's enough spiritual and supernatural nattering that one reporter at the recent TCA press tour asked if some of the characters might actually be werewolves — see, again, the whole feral/Ferrell thing — which sounds ridiculous, but won't sound quite so ridiculous after you watch. This is a world of almost infinite potential fascination, but a greater interest is in characters fighting on and against each other in different machines.
Morse plays Big Foster as a woodland cousin of his True Detective cult leader, but the pseudo-Shakespearean weight the writers want to put on his desire to rule requires a depth they have yet to provide. As he did with Opie on Sons of Anarchy, Hurst makes Lil Foster into an underestimated giant, forced by circumstances to kowtow but possessing more soul and fortitude than anybody suspects. Freed from the responsibilities of a consistent American accent that have doomed several of his previous American series roles, Anderson keeps Asa resourceful and yet mysterious in a way that has me anticipating an eventual character twist. I think Alexy may have breakout potential, but I await G'Wen getting to do something other than waffling back and forth between scruffy men.
Down in civilization, Wright, so good on FX's The Bridge and completely unrecognizable here, is the standout. I don't know if Wade is a coward, a Farrell sympathizer or just a confused junkie, but there are elements of all of those possibilities in Wright's inward-looking performance. Also memorable Down Below is Christina Jackson's very sweet Sally-Ann, a cashier who begins a tentative flirtation with Hasil (a very fine Kyle Gallner), a wood-carving Farrell.
Outsiders has the backdrop and characters of a much better series, but insufficient sense of the paces to put them through, which becomes more and more of a problem as it progresses and fails to deepen. Talking to colleagues who may have been hesitant after a lax pilot, rather than saying something encouraging like, "It gets more involving" or "You won't believe the plot twists coming up," I've had to resort to lures like, "But something kinda ridiculous happens in the fourth episode" or "But things get really silly around the fifth episode. It may not be "good," but it doesn’t lack for "crazy."
Cast: David Morse, Joe Anderson, Ryan Hurst, Kyle Gallner, Thomas Wright, Gillian Alexy
Creator: Peter Mattei
Showrunners: Peter Mattei and Peter Tolan
Airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on WGN America.