Of the many things to admire about Outcast, the terrific new series from Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, one of the most striking is that it provides entry into a world rarely covered by long-form narrative television: working-class rust belt American culture. Towns like Rome, West Virginia (the fictional setting for this show) exist all over this country, but if you only knew the United States from its TV output, you’d think places like Rome were rarer than unicorns. Decaying industry, crumbling infrastructure, and a main street that lasts all of a few blocks signify a small town past its prime, trying to ride out the loss of economic stability with religion, hard work, and a sense of community support that can easily shade into community suspicion. This isn’t Norman Rockwell’s feel-good Americana. It’s David Lynch’s folksy picket fences that hide darkness and despair.
Outcast is the story of Kyle Barnes (an excellent Patrick Fugit), a man who lives alone in the house where he grew up, maintaining a discomforting isolation from everyone around him. That internal exile is reinforced on both sides, as the community largely judges him for a violent act from his past—an act which, like so much else in this town’s history, is far from the real story. See, Kyle has experience with the supernatural, having dealt with evil spirits possessing loved ones when he was a child. Those harrowing events shaped his trajectory, and corrupted his simple desire for a life of family and security. But when the town’s fire-and-brimstone Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister) confronts Kyle with evidence that the demons who once haunted him are threatening more people, he’s pulled back into the dark and nightmarish world he tried to put behind him.
Scary stories of priests, possessions, and exorcisms are plentiful to the point of exhaustion, so it’s a testament both to Kirkman’s inventiveness as a storyteller (the series is based on his comic of the same name) and the show’s creative team that none of this feels predictable, or like a rehash of things we’ve seen a hundred times before. The mythology of the series isn’t the same old version of dour piety and Latin recitations that animates most tales of God-fearing crusaders fighting the devil. The best term to convey Kyle and the reverend’s confrontations with evil is visceral. It’s a raw physicality and intimate rending of flesh that elicits a far more potent reaction in the viewer than yet another melange of pea-soup bile and speaking in tongues. And the CGI is blissfully sparse, used only when necessary, and even then only with elements that couldn’t be rendered traditionally.
Similarly, the world of Rome created by Outcast feels lived-in and rich, coated by years of grime and routine that covers every resident of the town. Kyle’s adopted sister Megan (Wrenn Schmidt) shops at the secondhand store; the reverend plays poker and drinks whiskey in the back of the church with the local sheriff (Reg E. Cathey), a man who’s seen enough to know that some things should be swept under the rug. When Kyle wants to leave his run-down home and go into town, he has to borrow the old car of his kindly neighbor. This isn’t a place where people can walk around anonymously. It’s a place where everyone looks out for one another—or, conversely, looks down on one another.
There’s an elegance to the show’s narrative and execution that keeps it from feeling like a cut-rate horror show, some dime-store version of The X-Files that only traffics in Exorcist tropes. While its serialized storytelling clearly has the long game in mind (a taunt by a possessed boy in the pilot, warning Kyle of the inevitability of “the great merger,” teases the larger plan at work), each episode is also an actual episode, providing both momentum in plot and a slice-of-life excerpt from each member of its damaged ensemble. In short, it maintains the structural consistency of something like The Sopranos, rather than the movie-in-13-acts nature of modern binge-watch Netflix series. Also, it’s filmed superbly; pilot helmer Adam Wingard sets the look and feel of the show with a smart balance between the washed-out images of Kyle’s memories and the stark, austere nature of present-day Rome. Plus, as he’s demonstrated in films like You’re Next and The Guest, he has an expert sense of pacing and how to build tension, a quality that carries over to subsequent directors. (Although the series does indulge in the occasional shock jump-cut flashback for shock’s sake.)
Overall, the careful details and steady character work elevate this supernatural mystery into more than just a pulpy horror show. A bike leaning against a tree in the past is shown again in the present, having rusted and grown into the side of the trunk. Small elements of Kyle’s past resurface in the modern day, whether he’s awkwardly making small talk in the supermarket with women from church, or having an affecting heart-to-heart with his neighbor. And the show has overwhelmingly cast people with compelling faces, idiosyncratic character actors whose visages convey distinction and depth merely by showing up. (You don’t cast Grace Zabriskie and Brent Spiner in meaty supporting roles if you’re planning to paint by numbers.) Even characters the show wants to remain ambiguous, like the is-he-good-or-evil sheriff, give off a lifetime of hardship and small-town insularity in every expression.
The opening sequence of Outcast might just top The Walking Dead’s in terms of sheer “holy shit, that just happened” nerviness. It establishes a grisly and menacing tone, one the show follows through on in spades. The exorcisms are harsh and ugly, and the interactions between all the players loaded with layers of meaning and suggestion, borne from years of troubled relationships. Kirkman has grown as a storyteller since the earliest days of his landmark undead-apocalypse series, and clearly learned lessons that he’s applied to the spectacular pilot script for this new series. If the following episodes don’t quite match up to the levels of the premiere, they still do strong work unfolding the story of a man who possesses gifts he doesn’t quite understand. Outcast is a creepy, unsettling treat—and one of the strongest TV debuts of the year.
Reviews by Kyle Fowle will run weekly.