After mobsters, bikers, Mormons, spies, advertising executives, maximum security prisoners, and soon porn, one could be forgiven for thinking cable television writers had run out of predominantly white subcultures in which to set their shows. But in Outsiders, creator Peter Mattei has found a new and particularly intriguing one: the physically and socially isolated Farrell Clan, a tribe several dozen strong that’s managed to survive on Kentucky’s Shay Mountain for over 200 years.
The potential for Outsiders as a series is obvious. Its premise plays on America’s fear of and fascination with whatever happens in the wilds of Appalachia without necessarily buying into them; once the representative of the big, bad coal company refers to the Farrells as “retard hillbilly animals,” we know where our sympathies are supposed to lie. Meanwhile, there’s room to both explore the Farrells’ daily life, separate from the conveniences and customs of modern-day society, and create natural conflict with the outside world in the form of said big, bad coal company.
What’s less obvious about Outsiders is its outlet. While its clear parallels to Sons of Anarchy, Big Love, or any number of similar series would make it perfectly at home on AMC or HBO, Outsiders will be broadcast instead on WGN America, a channel buried in millions of cable packages that’s just begun to break into original programming. Outsiders is only its third show, after witch trials drama Salem and critically adored period piece Manhattan. Later in the spring, it’ll be joined by slave liberation drama Underground, which comes fueled by the star power of executive producer John Legend. (Though Outsiders isn’t without some big names of its own — Paul Giamatti, of all people, is also an EP.)
WGN America seems aware it’s waging an uphill battle for attention, which might be why it’s adopting a somewhat unorthodox release strategy for the series. After tonight’s premiere, the first three episodes of the 13-episode season will be available on Crackle (the streaming service best known for Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee), YouTube, and Facebook, putting a free mini-binge in front of the eyeballs of as many people as possible. It’s not dissimilar to TBS’s decision to unload all of Angie Tribeca at once, letting a streaming audience snowball over several months and trusting that said audience will like the show enough to watch Season 2 in real time when it comes out later this year.
All these wonky discussions of channels and distribution strategies, of course, wouldn’t be worth having if Outsiders weren’t worth watching. It is. The series is balanced nicely between the efforts of Asa Farrell (Joe Anderson), a clan member recently returned from a decade off the mountain, to reintegrate into his family while saving them from certain eviction, and those of local sheriff Wade Houghton (Thomas M. Wright) to avoid an ugly confrontation between the Farrells and law enforcement.
Outsiders clearly takes the Farrells’ side in this dispute; it may fit in well with the current cable landscape as a deep dive into a culture built on seclusion and aggressive masculinity, but moral ambiguity isn’t its strong suit. Instead, we get loving appreciations of Farrell customs both ridiculous — “pit fighting,” in which two clan members joust each other on ATVs — and fascinating. The Farrells have their own language, religion, and carefully maintained division of labor, with world-building that’s both impressive in its detail and manageable in its scope, thanks to the Farrells’ relatively tiny numbers and domain.
It’s enough to fuel interest in the show despite individual characters that feel as stock as the setting does novel. Alpha male Big Foster (David Morse) is impatient to replace his mother as clan leader and threatened by Asa’s reappearance; a slick, smooth rep from the coal company (Francie Swift) proves far more ruthless than the guy she was brought in to replace. And unsurprisingly, roles for women, with the exception of that coal rep, are largely limited to mother, crone, and love interest.
But somehow, Mattei and his collaborators — who bring impeccable late-Golden Age bona fides, having spent time on Fargo (Steve Blackman) and Justified (Ryan Farley) — have stumbled on a genuinely new environment to establish these sometimes-engrossing, sometimes-tired dynamics. It’d be a shame if WGN’s obscurity meant viewers didn’t get the chance to try it out for themselves.
Outsiders premieres tonight on WGN America at 9 pm. The first three episodes will then be available for streaming on Crackle, YouTube, and Facebook.