Roush Review: On Rugged Outsiders, Expect Things to Get Hairy

Matt Roush
The Outsiders
WGN America

And Raylan Givens thought the Crowes were a handful.

In what initially comes off as a grim yet exotic mash-up of Justified and Sons of Anarchy, WGN America gives it the old FX try in hopes of finding ratings gold in them there rustic Appalachian hills. Outsiders introduces us to the Farrells, a clan of hirsute, proudly isolationist mountain people-moonshiners who live outside the reach of modern civilization. So illiterate they can't even read their own eviction notice without help, these exotic primitives speak in an archaic patois and engage in brutal rituals like the "pit fight," which is basically jousting with wheels.

The smug suits down below in the rural Kentucky town of Blackburg, where the town mascot is the Wild Boar, consider the Farrells "retard hillbilly animals." Enter a coldly corporate Big Coal company urging the local authorities to uproot the Farrells, clearing the way to blow up the mountaintop to get to the treasure below. Predictably, they've underestimated the tribe's resolve.

"The harder we try to push, the tougher they're going to get," warns Deputy Sheriff Wade Houghton, a substance-abusive depressive played with forlorn gravity by the terrific Thomas M. Wright (Top of the Lake, The Bridge). But does anyone listen?

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In a similar situation is Asa Farrell (Joe Anderson), an outcast among outsiders because he left to see the world, making it all the way to California before disillusion set in. Scorned as a "traveler," and sentenced to six months in a cage for his transgressions, Asa emerges as a voice of reason that few choose to heed.

There's plenty of ripe class conflict in both worlds, and occasional gut-wrenching twists, as we see to what primal lengths the Farrells will go to preserve their turf and uphold their savage traditions. A subplot involving the literally killer moonshine known as "Farrell Wine" leads to gruesome murder and mutilation. Even Walter White might be impressed. And in one of the niftier examples of worlds colliding, a young Farrell boy doing his business in the woods takes down a surveillance drone. His father's reaction to this alien object: "There's demons afoot."

The Outsiders

WGN America

David Morse as Big Foster

Outsiders is on shakier ground as it develops soapier subplots, including a power struggle within the clan for the vaunted position of "Bren'in," or leader—a title the boorish Big Foster (David Morse in fright dreds) covets, if he can only get his shrewish mother, Lady Ray (a formidable Phyllis Somerville), out of the way. There's a contrived love triangle involving Big Foster's hapless son—Lil Foster, naturally (Sons of Anarchy's Ryan Hurst)—the prodigal Asa, and a spunky lass named Gwen (Gillian Alexy), short for the bastardized G'Winveer. Plus, there's a presumably ill-fated Romeo-Juliet courtship involving a naïve young Ferrell and a "lostie," or townie.

After watching the first handful of episodes, one begins to itch for the inevitable war to break out. But that may also be because we've been conditioned for years to expect new seasons of Justified in January, a show that covered similar sorts of terrain with much more facility and wry humor. I'd love to see Raylan wrangle with this backwoods brood, but while we dream, we can also ponder how Farrell Wine would stack up against the legendary Mags Bennett's lethal Apple Pie.

Outsiders premieres Tuesday, Jan. 26, 9/8c, WGN America


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