Outsiders Series Premiere Review: Old Ways vs. Older Ways Makes For New Drama

Outsiders S01E01 / S01E02 / S01E03 / S01E04 / S01E05: "Farrell Wine" / "Doomsayer" / "Messenger" / "Rubberneck" / "Demolition"

There's a family of raccoons that lives in my pantry, so I can sympathize with Sheriff Wade Houghton (The Bridge's Thomas M. Wright) in WGN America's new drama Outsiders, because I'm not about to tell those critters to GTFO lest I get my eyes scratched out and have rabies shots for the next year. In the new series, Sheriff Houghton has the unenviable job of telling a clan of hillbillies that it has to abandon a Kentucky mountain it calls home so that a coal company can come on in and blow the top off the rock and start making millions. 

It's a premise that could be dumbed down to gap-toothed grins and banjo pickin' as yokels cock shotguns and scream, "Git off 'r land!" and at times—especially in the pilot—it is. But Outsiders creator Peter Mattei and executive producers Peter Tolan (Rescue Me) and Paul Giamatti (yes, that Paul Giamatti) picked up on the project's potential as a backwoods family drama, creating a series that may not be amazing, but is certainly quite good with potential to go beyond that. If the thuggish family dynamics and loyal friendships of Sons of Anarchy and Vikings were/are your thing, then pull up a stump and a squirrel skewer, and start digging into Outsiders

Though Outsiders is supposedly about Sheriff Houghton versus the Farrell clan (said woodland critters squatting in the mountain), we'll spend most of our time early on in the trees and ramshackle cabins with the Farrells, and watching how these off-the-gridders live is a big draw of the series. That's where the extended clan of possibly hundreds of bumpkins engage in soapy village drama—despite the fact that there is absolutely zero soap in sight—and put on a display of culture that is simultaneously savage in its execution and beautiful in its bonding. These people speak an Appalachian pidgin, ride ATVs into stores and loot them while hollerin', brew incredibly potent and potentially hallucinatory Farrell wine (a.k.a. moonshine), and celebrate birthdays and weddings with wrestling, getting hillbilly F'd up, and some public fornicatin'. It's like night two of Bonnaroo, basically. 

But as different as they are from us deodorant-using normals, they are more familiar than you'd think, especially if you watch any of the shows it's been compared to. The Farrells run under almost medieval governing, with an elderly matriarch known as a bren'in calling the shots, and when we enter the world of Outsiders, her authority is being challenged by her eldest son Big Foster (Treme's David Morse), a lug whose desire for power and love of the old ways might push him to make some questionable power plays. Under him is his eldest son, Lil Foster (Ryan Hurst, looking just like his Sons of Anarchy character Opie, which is how it should be), a man trying to win his tough-as-butt father's good graces. 

On the more traditionally dramatic side, there's a Romeo and Juliet thing going on with Hasil (Veronica Mars' Kyle Gallner) and an African-American cashier in town named Sally-Ann (Boardwalk Empire's Christina Jackson), and a central love triangle between Lil Foster, the fair G'winveer (The Americans' Gillian Alexy), and Asa (Hannibal's Joe Anderson), a Farrell cousin who left the mountain for 10 years and returned—not without pushback from the clan—once he realized the outside world was full of devils just like he was taught. This is all standard television family drama with less shampoo and more hair braids, but as a central heartbeat for everything else that's going on, it works particularly well at quickly establishing the characters and weaving the complicated relationships between them, unlike other dramas that have problems spitting out their ensembles in their first hours. 

If that's the mainstream entry point of Outsiders, let some of the more clever angles keep you around. Asa, in particular, is a fantastic character who serves as a bridge for the two worlds. With 10 years of life among the city folk, he's educated (he can read!) and a valuable link for the Farrells to understand how the mining company is acting (or literally, what they're writing). But turning one's back on the clan is highly frowned upon, and most of his cousins don't want him on the mountain. It puts him in the position of proving himself to his family, and using his Farrell heartiness with his city smarts makes him invaluable and fascinating. It also allows for another window into the Farrells so that they're not all jittery believers in wood spirits or dopes who can't read an eye chart. 


But I'll have to circle back to Sheriff Houghton, a nervous and reluctant officer of the law who'd rather keep the peace between parties than break it, for the most interesting character on or off the mountain. He's a complicated man stuck between his own fear and his own responsibility, and in every scene he looks like the world just took a dump in his Cheerios. The incredibly talented Aussie actor Wright, who is my pick for our next Daniel Day Lewis, takes the character and makes him real, much in the same way he did with The Bridge's Steven Linder or Top of the Lake's Johnno Mitcham. Under Wright, Houghton's problems percolate like a nuclear reaction ready for meltdown, and the secrets he keeps feel less like plot points to be exploited and more like chains keeping a beast within. This dude can act, even when he's wearing a Borat-style 'stache, and the sense that he'll explode at some point in this first season creates extra tension on top of all the Farrell squabbles.

As the series progresses and after the Farrells are well established (I watched the five episodes of the season made available to critics, mostly because I couldn't stop), Outsiders concentrates more on the battle between the Farrells and the mining company, reminding the viewer that the show is more than just a look at hicks, but a statement on ecoterrorism, the indigenous rights and the preservation of ecosystems in a world that's tearing itself apart through technology, and the demands of a public that asks corporations to grab dollars by depleting natural resources. And thankfully it doesn't hit you over the head with those ideas, instead letting it permeate through the drama between the Farrells and everyone else. Also, there may or may not be a moonshine-fueled game of drunken Chicken with million-dollar construction equipment. 

The pilot moves much faster than most prestige dramas to its benefit. There's a lot going on in Outsiders and it doesn't slow down, but each story is trimmed of any excess so that the speed at which the show moves is an asset. 

Outsiders found a way to bring a new world to television that fused a traditional family drama about an untraditional family and societal issues that don't get a lot of attention. It's another fine step for WGN America, which is proving itself to be quite the home for smart dramas that focus on character and next-level thinking. 

 


NOTES

– Wright isn't the only one acting his pants off. Anderson continues his trajectory as an acting beast as Asa, Phyllis Somerville is commanding as Lady Ray, and Francie Swift (who I believe shows up in the second episode) is incredible as a public relationship manager for the mining company. 

– Plus it's great to see Ryan Hurst back on TV! 

– ATV jousting: cool or corny? I say mostly cool.

– Here's a look at what else is to come this season in this new trailer:


Outsiders airs Tuesday at 9pm on WGN America.


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Jan 27, 2016
I find it interesting. It is a good premise. I do feel like I have seen or read it before. With the guy that went out to experience the world and then came back to his people during a time of war.

The only problem I see off hand is there are better actors on the feral side than there is on the Sheriff side. I am not sure I have seen the lead Deputy before but if he is it for the Sheriffs than they have a lot of catch up to do.

overall I am going to give this a shot. WGN has more than proven that they can deliver quality shows.
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Jan 27, 2016
Is this like Sons of Anarchy but without the poor editing from Kurt Sutter? Then it can be good.
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Jan 27, 2016
Nothing at all great, but was interesting enough that I'll watch episode 2 next week. Might take a few episodes to decide if I'll continue watching. First episode was definitely lacking the good eye candy T&A/sex seen in WGN's SALEM and MANHATTAN. OUTSIDERS description/script is also in no way a match to those shows. Trailer at the end for UNDERGROUND seemed very promising.
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Feb 03, 2016
UPDATE: Watched episode 2: BORING, VERY BORING. Dropped it from my watch list.
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