If you’re looking for a show to fill that Sons of Anarchy–size hole in your booze-and-nicotine-saturated heart, WGN’s Outsiders will do the trick. Poised somewhere between Quality TV pretentiousness and a 1970s drive-in picture that might have starred the pre–Smokey and the Bandit Burt Reynolds, it fits the template that fans of genre filmmaking have dubbed “whitesploitation,” recasting the lives of an insulated rural family as a macho melodrama about land and tradition.
The Farrells, a clan of about 200 overseen by a matriarch called Lady Ray (Phyllis Somerville), have lived on the fictional Shay Mountain for two centuries, practicing a lifestyle that time forgot (bacchanals, knife skills). They live off the grid, are distrustful of money and guns, and have very little contact with the supposedly civilized world down below, except when they hop onto their all-terrain vehicles and rampage through nearby towns to get supplies they can’t find or create in the woods. The series takes its sweet time immersing us in the Farrells’ world, not bringing the family into drama-realigning contact with civilization, such as it is, until a mining company realizes there’s a billion dollars worth of ore up there, and the only thing standing in their way is the Farrells.
The show is an amalgam of unfamiliar and very familiar elements. The mining-company stuff ties Outsiders in with the tradition of Westerns that pitted homesteaders against ranchers who wanted to confiscate their sheep-grazing meadows for cattle or railroad barons who wanted to send trains through. There are also echoes of the second season of Justified, which likewise pitted a woodland crime family against a mining company that wanted to buy them out and relocate them, leveling their traditions along with the mountaintop. David Morse’s Foster, who’s irked that mama bear hasn’t stepped down yet, and boasts a lush Old Testament beard, mustache, and flowing silver locks, even gets to growl the line, “Stay the hell offa our mountain!” (mandatory in a story like this). There’s also a love triangle involving Asa Farrell (Joe Anderson), who has returned home after many years away; his former flame, G’Winn (Gillian Alexy), and Foster’s son Little Foster (Ryan Hurst). And there’s a romance between the wavy-haired, McConaughey-esque Hasil (Kyle Gallner) and an African-American hardware-mart cashier from down in the valley (Christina Jackson’s Sally-Ann).
The local deputy, an alcoholic single dad named Wade (Thomas Wright of Top of the Lake), talks like the sheriff in an old Western who’s as scared of the local bandits, or “Injuns,” as the people he protects. There’s nothing to be done about the Farrells, he says, except accept the fact that they exist, and that sometimes they raise hell. “They know how to stick together, they are a family,” he says. “The harder we try to push, the tougher they are gonna get.”
Some of the scenes verge on action-movie absurdity (most of the stuff involving all-terrain vehicles feels like a real-world hiccup of the Mad Max series), but there are low-key, even tender moments, too, sometimes with a touch of odd humor — as when Hasil waits for Sally-Ann after closing time, asks her out for chicken wings and beer, then admits that he has no money. “So what, we’re gonna rob it?” she asks. “I don’t know,” he says, grinning, “We could.” “I don’t want to go to jail,” she says. “Good night.” A wide shot of the store’s exterior stresses the rows of PVC pipe on racks in the foreground, placed in the parking lot for residents’ convenience.
The game cast brings shadings of self-doubt and sensitivity to material that might otherwise have played as an endless series of chest-thumping standoffs. Morse is first among equals, though of course that’s often the case with this actor, who’s never given a bad performance to my knowledge. You sense a decency in Foster even when he’s being ruthless. Deputy Wade is just as compelling, and more tortured in some ways. He’s the representative of the outside world, yet he understands and appreciates the Farrells and even identifies with them, at least when he’s dealing with the mining company’s condescending suits. Wright articulates the character’s internal tug-of-war through modulations in his voice and flickers of fear in his eyes. This is an addictive show — unafraid to go for the big gesture when thinks it’ll jack up the audience’s adrenaline, but more thoughtful than it needed to be. It seems to want to be The Hillbilly Godfather, and while it probably doesn’t have the gravitas for that, you may appreciate that at least they’re aiming high.