When network executives, critics and viewers moan and groan about there being too many new shows in the current TV market (a.k.a. “peak TV”) and point out how some of the content coming from new players can never last, I can’t help but wonder whether they aren’t pointing a finger at WGN America.
In the past two years, the Chicago-based cable channel, which was forever known to basic cable subscribers for baseball games and sitcom reruns, redefined its business plan and ordered up some of them fancy-style original drama series to add to its schedule. (I mean, who do they think they are — AMC?) The network’s first couple of offerings have been spotty, starting with the silly sexy-witch drama “Salem” (which cast no spells whatsoever) and improving greatly with the ambitious “Manhattan,” which, in its second season, became a nice little dawn-of-the-atomic-bomb espionage drama.
“Outsiders,” which premieres Tuesday, is a notable leap forward for the network, as taut and intriguing and artfully conceived as any of the pretty-good series I’ve reviewed in the past year. You could proudly serve it alongside “Sons of Anarchy,” “Rectify” or “Justified,” and your guests might not taste the difference.
Set in the creepy hills and hollers of a remote (fictional) Kentucky town called Blackburg, “Outsiders” is about a large clan of people, the Farrells, who live atop a mountain and trace their ancestry in these parts back two centuries. Stubbornly antisocial and illiterate by choice, the Farrells enjoy a peaceable if intimidating coexistence with the citizens of Blackburg, choosing to occasionally descend their mountain on a pack of ATVs and help themselves to whatever they need from the local stores.
Blackburg’s small police force, including an unmotivated and ambivalent deputy sheriff and Oxycontin addict, Wade Houghton (Thomas M. Wright of “Top of the Lake” and “The Bridge”), looks the other way at the family’s occasional misdeeds. They are strangely respectful of the Farrells’ lore and traditions.
A big coal company, operating under the deceptively cheerful name One Planet Resources, has discovered a tantalizing seam of coal running right through the Farrell land and intends to begin a major mining operation — provided they can get the state and sheriff’s office to enforce an eviction notice on the Farrells.
Easier said than done, of course. In the first episode, a viewer gets more than an idea of the Farrells’ grit and their violent instincts. This means that “Outsiders” — which is created by Peter Mattei and co-produced by Peter Tolan (FX’s “Rescue Me”), Michael Wimer and actor Paul Giamatti (yep) — initially seems like a mediocre attempt to promote inbred bumpkin stereotypes and watch characters swig moonshine (the prized “Farrell wine”) while attacking one another with hunting knives.
In some ways, “Outsiders” has all the makings of the kind of show you’d bail on after an episode-and-a-half. Even if rooted in some anthropological research, the art direction and costuming choices veer toward the ridiculously overstyled, imagining a hillbilly culture that lands somewhere between Ewok and Juggalo.
Then again, if you stick with it, “Outsiders” becomes another pleasant surprise in a winter season that’s so far been full of shows that turned out better than I expected. The pace and writing are meaningful and sometimes verge on elegant, as “Outsiders” patiently explores the power dynamics in the town and the strange world on the mountaintop above.
David Morse (“Treme”) plays the fearsome and possibly psychotic Big Foster Farrell, who presumes he is next in line to inherit the title of Bren’in, the clan’s ruler. His ailing mother, Lady Ray (Phyllis Somerville), has other ideas, leaning toward passing the title on to her itinerant nephew, Asa (Joe Anderson), who has returned to the mountain after a decade of life in a big city, where he learned to read and assimilate into society. Lady Ray thinks Asa is a stronger choice for leader — and a better candidate to outsmart the coal company.
Side plots include a Romeo/Juliet-style romance between Hasil Farrell (Kyle Gallner of “Veronica Mars”) and Sally-Ann (Christina Jackson of “Boardwalk Empire”), an African American clerk at the store that Hasil and his relatives rob for supplies; and a memorably wicked performance from Francie Swift (“House of Cards,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”) as the coal company’s sugar-sweet and ruthlessly conniving PR specialist.
But the show’s most striking performance in the first five episodes is Wright’s, as the jittery Deputy Sheriff Houghton. As “Outsiders” meticulously reveals what’s beneath some of its narrative layers, viewers learn why Houghton is so jangled by the prospect of evicting the Farrells. “What in God’s name are you talking about — ‘Get them off the mountain’?” Houghton asks his boss. “You think you could last a winter up there? How about 200? I couldn’t. No money, no microwave, no convenience store. There’s a reason we can’t get them off that mountain. They know things, the name of which we can’t even remember. They know how to stick together. They’re family. And the harder we try to push, the tougher they’re gonna get.”
To that point, there’s a shocking moment in the fourth episode that changes the dynamic of the show and also plainly announces its intention as a drama worth noticing — not anywhere near perfect, but addictive enough to become a habit. That particular scene struck me as a very HBO kind of move, and it quietly echoes the central theme of “Outsiders,” which is about territory and staking one’s claim.
With this show, WGN America is asserting its right to make provocative television. The fight for viewers’ attention is getting bloodier.
Outsiders (one hour) premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WGN America.