Cinemax’s “Outcast” is a fiendishly pleasant surprise — a demonic-possession horror drama that leads with its heart instead of its 360-degree neck rotations and suggests a depressing (but timely) theme of social and moral rot in America.
Based on another graphic novel series from “Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman (people keep making comics, and networks keep adapting them), “Outcast,” premiering Friday, is set in the gloom of rural West Virginia, where a small-town preacher, Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister) does what he can to keep his followers’ personal demons at bay.
These are not the usual demons of temptation and sin, but icky, spewing cases of possession. The latest is a little boy who ate a cockroach off his bedroom wall and then nibbled one of his index fingers in half, before moving to the devil’s favorite hat trick: levitating off the bed. In its first four episodes, “Outcast” features many cameos from extras young and old who’ve all graduated with honors from the Linda Blair School of Acting.
None of this, of course, is played for cheap thrills (or laughs) in the way that AMC’s recently launched “Preacher” favors irony alongside its sense of the supernatural. “Outcast” is as serious as angioplasty.
Patrick Fugit (best known for his role as a teenage rock journalist in the 2000 film “Almost Famous”) stars as Kyle Barnes, a man reduced to living in the ramshackle remains of his childhood home. Bit by bit we discover that Kyle is persona non grata in his home town — his wife has a restraining order against him, and the town is still whispering about the ways he tried to harm his young daughter. His adoptive sister Megan (Wrenn Schmidt) tries to snap Kyle out of his funk, but she hardly understands his real torment.
The viewer, too, may have difficulty understanding precisely what Kyle is up against in the first couple of episodes, as “Outcast” metes out key details almost too carefully. Tipped off by local gossip in the grocery store, Kyle asks the Reverend if he can accompany him to the possessed boy’s house. In no time at all, the demon inside the child recognizes Kyle.
“You’re all grown up,” the demon snarls. “You’d barely even fit in that pantry now.”
Flashback time, when Kyle’s mother became possessed and kept him locked in the kitchen closet — and where he first learned that he has some life force inside him that the demons instinctively fear. It couldn’t help him save his mother (she’s in a coma at a nursing home) but it has made him alert to evils all around. The Reverend takes Kyle on as a sort of partner, for it turns out that West Virginia is rife with reports of possession. Fugit, stooped in sorrow and affecting a Southern drawl, is terrific as a flawed hero and tortured soul, who doubts his own abilities to face his fears.
Despite good performances, there are plenty of ways that the dialogue and pacing of “Outcast” still feel too much like a comic book. The four episodes provided to critics don’t indicate just how complex the overall plot is or how expertly the story will treat matters of faith. Are we embarking on a procedural series of exorcisms? Or does some larger conflict loom? (As soon as you ask, “Star Trek: The Next Generation’s” Brent Spiner shows up as Sidney, an unnerving dandy from hell.)
Time and further episodes will tell, and anyhow, it’s more intriguing at first to watch as Kirkman and showrunner Chris Black create an unsparingly downbeat portrayal of flyover country, where all the jobs went overseas and the Scripture cannot soothe the inner torment. “Outcast’s” West Virginia has some of the same vibe of the exurban Atlanta woods where Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” began and survivalist attempts at civilization first began to fray. Kirkman has a good eye and ear when it comes to setting his stories in the zone where NRA-style perseverance clashes with utopian desires for fairness. The zombie pandemic in “The Walking Dead” still works as a paranoid metaphor for terrorism, social collapse and the literal end of the American Dream.
Here, “Outcast’s” demons might similarly represent an unraveling of order and belief. People are not like they used to be. Something is eating at us from within. Brandishing Bibles and crucifixes, Kyle and the Reverend have a long way to go to make America great again.
Outcast (one hour) premieres Friday at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.