Hit or Sh**: Cinemax’s OUTCAST
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
OUTCAST wears its darkness proudly on its sleeve, which is both the best and most worrying thing about it. That’s not to say it isn’t supremely successful in telling its story (at least in the pilot). It is, but what that success means for the greater scheme of television and comic adaptations is something else entirely.
It was only a matter of time before Robert Kirkman (THE WALKING DEAD) got another one of his comics adapted to the screen. THE WALKING DEAD is one of the most popular television shows ever made, and rightfully so. It’s based on a hugely popular and critically well-received comic series, and while the show’s quality has fluctuated wildly, it usually walks the best possible line between thrilling action and human drama. OUTCAST, Kirkman’s new comic and show, is unique, primarily because the television show and the comic were being developed at the same time.
Just some beautiful cinematography throughout. Striking visuals.
Is OUTCAST uniquely cinematic because of this? Not exactly. If anything, the story of Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit) and his uneasy relationship with his family and his past favors a small scale intimacy almost antithetical to the spectacle that serves as THE WALKING DEAD’s bread and butter. This places OUTCAST in a unique position, being more formally and narratively refined than THE WALKING DEAD while courting a tone that is darker, scarier, and perhaps to its detriment, more dated.
A boy squashes a bug with his head and then licks it off the wall. It does not get less gross.
OUTCAST is about demonic possessions — in the most 90s sense of the term. Kyle Barnes is the protagonist, the typical white man with a troubling past. He was abused by his mother as a child (she was possessed), he was separated from his wife and child (his wife was possessed and tried to kill his daughter), and at the start of the pilot he lives as a hermit (or “outcast,” sigh) avoiding his adoptive sister Megan (Wrenn Schmidt) and the demons that seem to have haunted his entire life. The combined effort of his sister’s tenacity and the possession of a local boy forces him out of his self-imposed exile and into the arms of Reverend Anderson, a reluctant partner and the main connection to Kyle’s past.
White, male, and troubled. The prototypical hero. He just happens to hate demons.
The pilot unfolds slowly, through beautiful cinematography and fairly restrained and down-to-earth performances from the cast and its supporting members (notably featuring both Kate Lyn Sheil and Reg E. Cathey). What’s perhaps most impressive is that it doesn’t fall into many of the pitfalls of a traditional pilot, perhaps because the episode’s narrative hues remarkably close to the plot of the first issue of the comic (like THE WALKING DEAD before it). It could also be because OUTCAST has no qualms in using violence and gore to get its message across. This is not an episode for the light of heart, featuring copious amounts of blood and bile, creating possessions that are very literally that: physical possessions of a human body. What is most disturbing is the violence perpetrated against children. Kyle himself is a child of abuse and his mother’s physical attacks are shown frequently in flashbacks. Perhaps most damning, it takes Kyle physically punching the possessed boy at the center of the pilot within an inch of his life to get the darkness out of him.
Yet somehow with all this darkness, the OUTCAST pilot is able to ride above and not be entirely weighed down. The issue going forward is the tone and content of the show in the long term. OUTCAST could be perfectly well-executed for its entire run (and with the talent shown in front and behind the camera it seems likely), but unless the audience is willing to let another dark drama into their lives, I’m not sure how much farther this show should go. I’m not one to subscribe to the “peak tv” theory of television development, but creating yet another tonally dark, beautifully constructed drama seems to be traveling backwards when the rest of the industry has been looking forward. This pilot is a hit, and just like any show it’s up to the audience to determine if they want to let the darkness in.
Outcast airs on Fridays on Cinemax. The pilot episode is available on HBO GO.