The first four episodes of Robert Kirkman's Cinemax series are 'more interesting than engrossing'
In the new Cinemax supernatural drama Outcast, Patrick Fugit of Almost Famous fame is Kyle Barnes, a man-child whose demons are legion. They keep him emotionally locked up and physically locked away in his childhood home that’s become a haunted house. His community might be safer for it, but it’s not a healthy place for him to stay, either. Every nook and cranny triggers a memory of the mother who loved him, then began abusing him. What the hell got into her? Kyle doesn’t know, but he knows what it looks like — a vile and volatile phlegm, thick and black as tar. Kyle could never escape the corruption that spoiled his innocence. It followed him into adulthood and destroyed his marriage. Now, weirdly, the occult evil that claimed his mom and wife is spreading throughout his hometown of Rome, a sullen West Virginia backwater, taking possession of the vulnerable and the alienated. Kyle has the power to beat this foulness out of them. But why? And why do the shadows gather around him at all?
Outcast, premiering June 3 on Cinemax (the network posted the pilot episode on YouTube last month), is adapted from a comic book by Robert Kirkman, the big brain behind The Walking Dead. The show contributes to the trend of bleak graphic novel pop that’s graphic, for sure, but becoming less and less novel. Deadpool was an explicitly wicked hoot. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and X-Men: Apocalypse were… things we can’t agree on. Lucifer was a surprise hit for Fox. The Walking Dead introduced us to Negan and hit us over the head with the barbed, brutal spirit of the age. Last week, The Flash, once a bastion of shiny, happy, joyous heroism, succumbed to despair and broke bleak. Is there no running away from this present anti-hero darkness?
For anyone who’s had enough, Outcast might be more ‘must skip’ than ‘must see.’ It’s certainly far from awesome, as this review will eventually explain. But Outcast — a story about souls and a culture grown stagnant from so much darkness — could prove to be a transitional text. It’s a different kind of horror beast from Kirkman: Outcast continues his practice of dramatizing human monstrousness with horror genre tropes and satisfactions, but the scope is more intimate, the style is moodier. It’s pre-apocalyptic saga, not post-apocalyptic, one where “We are the walking dead!” becomes “We are demons to each other!” There’s even a glimmer of hope, but whether it comes from divine intervention or human ingenuity is TBD.
Outcast is also notable for grappling with Christian themes, or, perhaps, casting shade on them. It’s a thematic compliment to another comic book adaptation, AMC’s Preacher, which commences its rookie season proper on June 5 after two weeks of pilot airings. Preacher concerns a conviction-challenged Texas reverend who becomes imbued with an otherworldly spirit that may or may be divine in nature. Like Outcast, Preacher is a Southern Gothic saga that grieves a fallen world and proud, sinful people (I’d love to read a Flannery O’Connor review of the show), but its thoroughly irreverent, po-mo pulp perspective suggests that — much like the source material — the series is ramping up to a riotous, pissed-off rant against the kind of God that remains distant from His/Her/Its suffering creation. (At the risk of going too far afield here, but for a powerful dramatization and direct articulation of this critique, please check out History’s powerful new version of Roots.)
Outcast could be building the same case. Depends on where the story places the blame for a gone-mad world run amuck with predators. (I’ve only read six of the comic’s 19 issues to date.) Regardless, Kirkman’s sympathy is clearly for the bedeviled. His theme is a rather Biblical conception of enmity — animus (human or otherwise) that creates division between people and separation from healing, life-giving truth, God and otherwise. Where Preacher is ironic, weird, and violent, Outcast is sincere, grounded, and reserved. The show seems to be closely following the comics, in plot, tone, and skew, toward psychological horror. There’s shock and gore, for sure, but Outcast favors brooding over spewing. It’s surprisingly chaste show for Cinemax. Those expecting a visceral thriller to fill the void of Banshee, abandon hope and prepare for mope.
Outcast is a synthesis of creep show influences. The blends are interesting, but they also yield familiarity. The most obvious is The Exorcist, director William Friedkin’s ruthlessly sensationalistic chiller (and set to get a small screen adaptation on Fox this fall). But there’s a clear shout-out to The X-Files — the two shows share freak-of-the-week structure, conspiracy framework, and faith/reason conflict — and implicit winks at others, too, including Twin Peaks, TV’s archetypal small town horror gothic. Reverend Anderson (British actor Philip Glenister) is the man of faith, a preacher ragged with flaws and crusty from spiritual warfare; he’s been playing holy toxic avenger for years now. Kyle, who enters into a fitful alliance with Anderson, is a darkly marked hero who can’t explain his past or plight and doesn’t easily buy into religious explanations for it… or maybe he’s afraid to. Framing Kyle’s murk and the show’s meta-pop communions is a faded old thing hanging in his bedroom: it’s an “I Want To Believe” poster from The X-Files.
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The opening sequence of the premiere intros the ghoul-busting duo’s first case, a problem child tempted to illicit snacking. Insects and hangnails are involved. A sly, symbolic set-up. What’s bugging Rome? What’s eating all of its Gilbert Grapes? An exorcist procedural faces the challenge of storytelling rules, especially one that seems to be working within a Christian framework, but may or may be interested in upholding it. Who gets possessed and why? What’s the process for successful eviction? How can it be complicated or subverted? Answers are suggested as patterns emerge, while Kyle’s peculiarities provide structure and replace theology with solvable mystery mythology. The sentient force occupying Rome recognizes him. Outcast, they call him. They recoil at his touch or punch; they flee (though sometimes not completely) when sprinkled with his blood. But is it the blood what burns them or the shedding of it? And does this violent do-gooding, redemptive or damning, work for Kyle? A shadow surely knows: Brent Spiner (Star Trek: The Next Generation) plays a dapper stranger with a wicked smirk who trolls the heroes, keenly interested in the unfolding drama. Kyle’s distinction could become a source of tension with Anderson, too. He might represent confirmation or challenge to the reverend’s religious convictions, and possibly, Anderson’s own sense of specialness.
In the four episodes made available for review, I didn’t see much variation or originality in the spectacle of demonic expression. Kirkman invests more imagination into his characters, major and minor. The afflicted are poignant sketches, unloved and hard to love, their brokenness a source of pain for themselves and those connected to them. They include a lonely, angry man who covets his best friend’s wife, the focus of episode 2; or the ongoing matter of Mildred (Grace Zabriskie), a proud elderly woman whose sourness has turned her caregiver-daughter against her. Zabriskie is a blessing to this show. As David Lynch fans can attest, she can chill you playing spooked (Twin Peaks) or sinister (Wild At Heart), and brings her best high strange to the role. (Ep. 4 has a real Twin Peaks vibe to it, with Zabriskie being the most potent manifestation. She played Sarah Palmer, wife of the weak-willed, demon-possessed Leland Palmer. Rome basically has a BOB outbreak in its hands. The congestion clogging the possessed? A black lodge.)
Other stories are slow-burn journeys into hearts of darkness. They try to grip you with disturbing intrigue (what exactly happened in a scratched-up, blood-splattered trailer in Rome’s pine barren woods?), or move you with poignancy. One storyline that doesn’t involve possession or exorcism or oily satanic goop – yet – further grounds the show in the horror, the horror of real-world evil. Like Kyle, Megan (Boardwalk Empire’s Wrenn Schmidt, who is very good here), his foster sister, was victimized as a child, and the memory of it poisons her life with cop husband Mark (David Denman, Pam’s warehouse worker beau on The Office). Both chase liberating catharsis. Each is tempted to do so through violence that would damn them. One affecting moment of psychological terror finds Megan walking down the hallway of her adult home and triggered: as a kid, a similar walk in her childhood home was always a journey fraught with overwhelming, paralyzing fear. In Outcast, memory can be a demon, too.
Outcast does just enough to push my buttons, but it’s more interesting than engrossing. I’m taken by a portrait of a community of interconnected people troubled by the problem of evil and their respective responses to it, yet lacking a framework to make sense of it and dealing with it in ways that don’t degrade them. I want to see how they resolve the conflict and find healing, provided Outcast can get better at keeping me awake on a Friday night. It’s a serious, maybe too serious, show that’s judicious with its scares and strangeness, and while it’s admirably offbeat, it could benefit from more innovation, variation and bolder filmmaking. Bottled-up Kyle isn’t the most dynamic protagonist, and Fugit isn’t exactly the most dynamic actor. But he has an appealing, soulful presence, and he makes Kyle compelling enough. The show is still learning to balance the mix of grim supernatural drama and gritty human drama. If you feel some drag and jumble in the early going, episode 4 dials up the Zabriskie and accelerates and complicates key subplots. With a livelier, fresher spirit, Outcast might really possess you. B