WGN America is not a name many TV viewers think of when they hear the phrase prestige drama, but the upstart cable network is quietly making moves to change that perception — two seasons in, "Manhattan" remains one of the more underrated gems on TV. The latest effort is "Outsiders," which brings together executive producer Paul Giamatti and an impressive list of TV vets, including David Morse and Ryan Hurst. Should fans tune in when the show premieres on Jan. 26?
"Outsiders" takes places somewhere in Appalachia in a small mining town in the shadow of Shay Mountain. Jobs have dried up and most of the people are on their last legs, but a large national company is promising hundreds of new jobs mining an untouched coal deposit beneath the mountain. The only problem, however, is the Farrell clan, an in-bred family of off-the-grid outcasts who have lived by their own rules on the mountain for 200 years. The Farrells have no intention of giving up their land and Deputy Sheriff Wade Houghton (Thomas M. Wright), who has a mysterious past with the Farrells, has no desire to poke the hornets' nest. But with folks in the town growing restless in hard times, something has to give.
There is as much drama to be found on the mountain as beneath it, after Asa (Joe Anderson) returns to the Farrell family after a multi-year excursion in the modern world. The Farrells are "Amish"-like in their disapproval of leaving their way of life behind, so not everybody is happy to see Asa back, least of all Big Foster (David Morse), the de facto leader of the family who sees Asa as a threat to his plan to take over officially when the elderly Lady Rae (an on-top-of-her-game Phyllis Somerville) passes. Tensions rise as Big Foster and Asa butt heads over how to best handle their would-be evictors at the bottom of the mountain — Asa advocates for caution and diplomacy, while Big Foster favors the long Farrell tradition of blunt violence.
The Farrells are a fascinating group to watch. The titular outsiders spend their days hunting, intimidating people from the town on stolen motorcycles, and drinking jug after jug of a moonshine-on-steroids drink they call Farrell Wine. Their idea of fun is playing darts with giant daggers and they settle their disputes by beating the snot out of each other in "pit fights" — ironically, beating each other up is also how they celebrate, forcing newlywed males to run a "gauntlet" of pushes and punches from the other men.
That all sounds a little "Mad Max." It looks it too. The Farrells dress in furs and sport shaggy beards. Their weapons are crude, guns are scarce, and their makeshift homes and vehicles are pieced together from spare parts stolen and scavenged from the base of the mountain. While the woods of Shay Mountain might house more vegetation than "Fury Road," the gritty landscape, shot largely on handheld cameras with muted, washed out colors, is just as bare and apocalyptic.
Watch the trailer for "Outsiders" below:
Despite the grungy aesthetic, there is some highbrow drama afoot in "Outsiders." The show is laced with Shakespearean storylines. Big Foster and Asa's power struggle echoes Claudius and Hamlet in "Hamlet." Big Foster's relationship with his mother screams "Macbeth." Plus, there is a love triangle between Asa, Big Foster's son, Little Foster (Ryan Hurst), and G'Winn (Gillian Alexy), the woman Asa left behind years ago. The show even has its Romeo and Juliet in Hasil (Kyle Gallner), a Farrell curious about life down below, and Sally Ann (Christina Jackson), a convenience store clerk who takes an interest in him.
These storylines (and more) develop slowly, perhaps a bit too slowly, but the characters grow far more organically with much more complicated dynamics than one might expect from the show's rough and tumble premise. Each character's every move is another domino in the escalating war between (and within) the Farrells and their enemies down below. The politics of the subtle alliance shifts and power plays position "Outsiders" as WGN's answer to "Game of Thrones," minus the dragons and flashy costumes.
Like "Game of Thrones," Outsiders" takes places in a world all its own, and the show's creators, playwright Peter Mattei and executive producer Peter Tolan ("Rescue Me," "Analyze This"), do well to keep that world intimate. While the threat of the outside world is much discussed, it is rarely seen, aside from the lurking presence of the mining company. That isolation allows the show's more far-fetched elements to feel more natural. The show is a fantastical fable set within a very real America.
And the show is very much of America. The drama in the town keeps the show grounded (no pun intended). When viewers are inside the Farrells' world the show feels like a genre piece, but from the outside, the Farrells feel like a stand-in for a certain brand of anti-government Americans, hoarding guns and lamenting any regulation or oversight into their way of life. Meanwhile, the town itself, embodied by Wade's out-of-work brother-in-law Breece (an underrated Jeb Kreager), is a constant reminder of the toll economic hardships take on working-class families in a system that may not be in their best interests. Many, especially the mining company, dismiss the Farrells as primitive savages, but Wade's begrudging respect for the family seems to be a kind of validation that "modernity" is not all it is cracked up to be either.
The writing and acting are strong throughout, but "Outsiders" still runs the risk of being niche. Many fans will struggle with the frequent hand-held camera work and the bleak aesthetic is not nearly as eye-grabbing as those of other cable shows. Plus, some might simply have no interest in watching gruff mountain men getting drunk and flaunting their machismo — this is certainly, at the start, a male-dominated show (another flaw). However, many of the same criticisms could have been levied at a show like "Game of Thrones" at the start.
The pace picks up around episode 3 when the Farrell family gets a little too brazen for its own good — there is a backhoe fight for crying out loud! — and those with the patience to stick this one out may be rewarded. "Outsiders" seems clearly designed to tap into a specific place in the American psyche, but only time will tell if viewers are willing to climb this mountain.
Correction: An earlier version of the story identified the network only as WGN.