'The Outpost': TV Review
It's hard to remember the last time a broadcast network aired a series that looked this cheap, which doesn't bode well for a show with epic fantasy aspirations.
With so much on TV endeavoring to close the gap between expectations for the big screen and small, there's something very nearly refreshing about The CW's new drama The Outpost, which looks to be closing the gap between the small screen and an unauthorized high school theatrical production of Game of Thrones.
Sorry. That's probably mean. It's just a little baffling to figure out what The Outpost is doing on The CW at all, other than keeping the lights on during the summer. Surely there had to be better illuminating options than this international production of questionable provenance — Dean Devlin's Electric Entertainment and Arrowstorm Entertainment made the show for Syfy outlets elsewhere — and insufficient inspiration to cover for a budget that must have been astoundingly low.
The Outpost isn't offensively bad. It's just head-scratchingly, "Why is this getting domestic distribution at all?" bad or "Geez, I hope The CW doesn't think it's going to be able to lure fans of The 100 to this" bad.
Jessica Green, who I think has a screen presence capable of allowing her to eventually move past this, stars as Talon, the last of the Blackblood race or tribe or species or something. With pointy ears and an apparent love of nature, they are sort of like elves except that… Well, the pilot doesn't give any other details, so while it's possible they have certain magical powers — Talon definitely can do something related to a confusing CG blur — they're wiped out by a band of bloodthirsty mercenary soldiers before they can exhibit definable characteristics.
The soldiers are part of a string of fantasy buzzword organizations swiftly introduced with the assumption that viewers probably won't be interested enough to ask follow-up questions. They're The Bones, and I think they're employed by The Covenant, which I think is part of The Prime Order, which I believe took power from The Royals, or some such thinly explained nonsense. This isn't one of those Game of Thrones or Tolkien things where you're invited to figure out a layered political or historical allegory. There isn't a fresh or interesting concept in the show.
Thirteen years after Talon watched her race get slaughtered in a nighttime raid on the poorly lit soundstage where her family dwelt, she's determined to get revenge and a quick montage takes her across whatever kingdom this is taking place in. Along the way, she passes through one poorly lit forest soundstage populated by badly computer generated creatures called grayskins before arriving at another poorly lit forest soundstage at the very outskirts of the realm, where she's attacked by poorly made-up creatures called plaguelings and rescued by roguish and dimpled Garret Spears (Jake Stormoen), a captain in the outpost guard. Garret brings Talon back to the outpost, where they are safely protected by walls that are either Styrofoam or paper mache, but don't look sturdy enough to withstand a stumbling gaffer, much less a feral army.
Is the outpost a full-scale city? A military installation? What's it keeping out? What's it protecting? Unfortunately, with only one episode made available to critics, there's very little way of knowing, though Garret observes, "Nobody comes to the Outpost simply to find work. No, people come here because they're running from something." In short, therefore, the Outpost is a fantasy cliche. It does have a tavern, where Talon seeks employment and interacts with creepier-than-the-show-believes master brewer Janzo (Anand Desai-Barochia) and costumed-for-a-different-series Gwynn (Imogen Waterhouse).
Way too much of the pilot for The Outpost is people talking around the things the budget can't show. So Talon's fleeing from bad guys in an early scene and one soon-to-die sidekick warns her, "The other side is grayskin territory." She continues and the pursuing soldiers stop and say, "That's grayskin territory. They won't get far" before holding back. Then a bad special effect attacks and Talon says, "Grayskins. I was hoping they weren't going to be this far east." This is all in maybe a minute of screen time. Whatever limited momentum the show has comes from composer James Schafer's reasonable approximation of every fantasy score ever.
There are ways of working around a budget deficit, but show creators Jason Faller and Kynan Griffin haven't figured out how to accomplish that task.
One obvious way would be to do something interesting with your characters, any of your characters, and upending genre expectations. It doesn't have to be the plucky feminism of a The 100 or a Wynonna Earp, but those are two easy examples of shows that charted ideological territory that upstaged effects-free primitivism or primitive special effects. As well as Green holds the camera, Talon isn't much of a character. She's spirited and independent until exactly the point at which she requires a man to save her life, and even when she's spirited and independent, she's not notably clever or quick. The attempt to create pseudo-romantic banter between Talon and Gwynn is undone by clumsy staging within the amateurish outpost set, a lack of chemistry and the fact that Garret has to both flirt and give exposition like, "Those are plaguelings. They spread their... disease... through that... needle they try to stick you with." Every time Talon has a sidekick for very long, they seem to die, and after one episode, I'm already perfectly ready for that fate to befall Janzo and Gwynn.
Another way of working around a budget deficit is to find creative ways of handling action. Xena was not a show with a huge budget, but it was a show with boundless energy and ingenuity when it came to delivering action that was fun, if not epic. Pilot director John Lyde tries to hide as much of the action in darkness as possible. It's suggested that Talon has skills with hand-to-hand fighting, swords and the aforementioned CGI shimmer, but with this lack of stunts or effects you'd never know. The pilot's big action showdown is woefully choreographed and sets up a dumb cliffhanger that I tried to get a second episode to resolve, without any luck.
Yet another way of working around penny-pinching is to substitute humor for grandeur, having characters joking a little about the situations they find themselves in, making it clear to the viewers that it's OK to laugh along with a wooden supporting performance, less-substantive-than-wood set or sub-video game creature.
The Outpost has none of that. For reasons I can't figure out, it takes itself seriously. As this review makes clear, I made a mistake in trying to do the same.
Cast: Jessica Green, Jake Stormoen, Imogen Waterhouse, Anand Desai-Barochia
Creators: Jason Faller and Kynan Griffin
Premieres: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (The CW)