Out There 

Out There previews tonight on IFC at 10:30 p.m. Eastern. It will officially debut Friday, February 22.

Given its name, Out There is surprisingly grounded. That’s not to say it’s realistic, but it isn’t the kind of surreal fantasy the name (and art design) might suggest. Instead, it’s an eccentric take on the near universal themes of awkward adolescence, small-town boredom, and not fitting in. The series centers on two teenaged outcasts, Chad and Chris. Chad (voiced by series creator Ryan Quincy) is the quiet kid who doesn’t fit in but doesn’t make waves, either. Chris (voiced by Justin Roiland, best known for his work on Fish Hooks) is a much louder, weirder kid who’s prone to semi-coherent outbursts that attract unwanted attention.

The two of them live in the small town of Holford, the kind of backwater where the recreational activities for teens consist of driving up and down the strip and hanging out at the Gulp and Go. Timewise, it seems to be set in the ‘80s, given that porn comes in magazine and scrambled-cable form, music comes on records, and there’s nary a cell phone to be seen anywhere. Basically, it’s the town from Footloose, only without the weird prohibition on dancing.

The supporting cast includes Chad’s little brother, Jay, a dreamy kid prone to elaborate fantasies; Chad’s crush, Sharla; and the local bully, Troy, or Chips-a-Troy as the kids call him, due to a chocolate-chip like constellation of moles on his face. Both sets of parents play major roles as well, particularly Chris’ mom’s boyfriend Terry, a creepy, drunken hustler with a tenuous grasp on reality. Those characters are voiced by a solid cast, including John DiMaggio (Troy), Kate Micucci (Jay), Linda Cardellini (Sharla), and Fred Armisen (Terry).

The character design is bizarre, especially for a show that is grounded in reality despite its frequent flights of fancy. Chad looks like a refugee from a Richard Scarry book about monsters, as do his little brother and father. Most of the other cast members, including Chris, are portrayed as more recognizably human, albeit as lumpy, somewhat abstract humans. Oh, and everyone has these weird little claw hands. It’s an odd aesthetic choice, but once the initial WTF reaction fades, it’s not an issue, and it certainly lends the series a distinctive look.

The pilot episode focuses on the meeting between Chad and Chris, two very different personalities who discover they complement each other nicely. It starts a little slow, as the first half is mostly introductions, stage setting, and general throat clearing. About halfway through, it starts to come together with a funny sequence animating Chris’s description of an elaborate escape plan that involves him telling off his enemies, getting the girl, and tap-dancing his way out the window and into a hot air balloon. It’s an exaggerated but believable take on the outlandish fantasies of adolescence that knits the threads of the pilot together nicely, displaying a warped sense of humor alongside a real understanding of its characters’ internal lives.

It’s the high point of the episode in many ways, but more importantly, it marks the point where the show starts to click. From there on, the jokes are better, the characters start to breathe a little, and the show’s promise starts to become apparent. Interestingly, the episode's other strongest moments are similar sequences illustrating the character’s internal lives in over the top fashion. The second episode builds on the momentum with a story about the ever-popular topic of awkward teen sexuality. It has its off moments, but it’s a strong episode that does a good job of building on the relationships introduced in pilot. If it takes a step back, it would be in the relative lack of the fantasy/flashback sequences that were the high points of episode one.

The show’s biggest problem is it just isn’t as funny as it should be. Too many of the jokes feel forced or just fall flat, and there are too many scenes bereft of jokes. That said, part of the reason it feels like Out There should be funnier overall is that its best moments are a lot funnier than the rest of the show. In other words, it seems to be a less of an issue with not being funny and more of an issue with consistency. If the series can increase the density and consistency of the jokes while building on the character relationships, it could be genuinely great.

Stray observations:

  • Don’t despair, Linda Cardellini fans. Her character isn’t introduced until episode two, and doesn’t get to do much even there, but she looks to be a major player going forward.
  • There are a number of weird, but awesome, parallels between the pilot episode and the classic teen farce Better Off Dead. I’m hoping that a) I didn’t imagine those, and b) we get more in the future, because Better Off Dead is one of my favorite movies ever.
  • Love the dude that hangs with Troy and carries a trumpet to punctuate his scenes with the occasional dose of sad trumpet.
  • The first episode relies too heavily on voiceover narration, but it’s thankfully dialed way back by the end of the episode and used much less in the second episode.
Filed Under: TV

More TV Club