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Outer Range Goes Off the Rails in the Best Way

Photo: Richard Foreman/Amazon Prime Video

The modern American West is deeply weird. It’s a place where religious fundamentalists buy up whole towns, billionaires colonize to cosplay as cowboys, and the vast expanse of land can hide all sorts of strange and worrisome things. That weirdness is alive in Outer Range, and in that sense, the show feels as true, if not truer, to the modern American West than anything on Paramount Network right now.

It opens with a horse galloping in slo-mo under storm clouds, overlaid by Josh Brolin’s narration, a mix of cowboy poet and dorm-room philosopher: “You know anythang about a Greek god called Chronos?” The sequence is so self-serious, so stoic, so very masc it’s almost hilarious. I was intrigued: Is this camp? But as the pilot settles into by-the-book exposition, Outer Range starts to feel like a blatant attempt to cash in on Hollywood’s blossoming romance with Taylor Sheridan’s brand of western mythmaking. Then, suddenly, comes this moment in the second episode: Noah Reid of Schitt’s Creek fame, wearing nothing but a pair of tighty-whities, singing Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” into the mirror at the top of his lungs. He’s giving and giving and giving. I’m back in.

Outer Range comes courtesy of Amazon Studios and is the second release from its deal with Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment following Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of The Underground Railroad. The show was created by Brian Watkins, a playwright whose works typically deal with the themes and settings of the American West (Wyoming, My Daughter Keeps Our Hammer), and it has consistently been described as “Yellowstone meets Twin Peaks,” which is a generally annoying pitch but mostly right. The story follows Royal Abbott (Brolin), the patriarch of a modest ranching family locked in a struggle over land rights with its wealthier neighbors, the Tillersons. The Abbotts are the spitting image of the mythologized American-heartland family: Royal, the classically taciturn cowboy type — Carhartt jacket, squints, grunts — is world-weary and lacking faith in God, a contrast to his wife, Cecilia (Lili Taylor), who goes to church and Bible study with intensity. Their younger son, Rhett (Lewis Pullman), is a competitive bull rider who wonders if he should get out of Dodge, while elder son Perry (Tom Pelphrey) is grieving the disappearance of his wife while caring for his young daughter, Amy (Olive Abercrombie). As a family unit, they’re a ball of repressed nerves until a spontaneous act of chaos results in Perry killing a Tillerson, and the subsequent cover-up draws the suspicions of their Wyoming town’s politically ambitious local sheriff, Joy (Tamara Podemski).

That’s the Yellowstone side of things. The Twin Peaks imprimatur principally comes in the form of a big ol’ void that inexplicably appears in a remote corner of the Abbotts’ pasture and pierces a hole in time and space. When Royal chances upon it, he’s understandably spooked, but for reasons not immediately revealed to the viewer, he’s compelled to keep it a secret, even from his family. His efforts are complicated by the arrival of the show’s other main Lynchian element, Autumn (Imogen Poots), an enigmatic backpacker who seems to know a thing or two about voids. Further mucking up Royal’s life is the fact that, in his attempt to protect Perry, he tosses the dead Tillerson’s body in the void — which, to be fair, is not an entirely unreasonable idea under the circumstances.

The void isn’t quite a J.J. Abrams–esque mystery box. It’s more reminiscent of Annihilation’s shimmery blob, a distorting force that doubles as the literalizing symbol of the show’s philosophical interests. And Outer Range has plenty on its mind, or so it signals. For the most part, it seems interested in the dissolution of the Abbotts’ particularly American way of life, which is being squeezed away by time, capitalism, corrupt bureaucrats, faltering faith, and so on. That nostalgia for the Old West, whether from Hollywood or some parts of the broader country, feels a little overbaked, not to mention worthy of interrogation, but for long stretches, Outer Range feels as if it’s working from this perspective. Not helping that suspicion is just how literally dark the show can be: The cinematography, while beautiful at many turns, tends toward inky black, rendering certain scenes near incomprehensible in a way that contributes to the general feeling that this is a Serious Show about Serious American Things.

But tremors of Outer Range’s destabilizing weirdness rumble throughout. Early in the show, a bizarre Kendrick Lamar needle drop arrives out of nowhere and leaves just as quickly. Midway through the season, Cecilia becomes transfixed with the corpse of a bear cub and hangs out with it in a shed. Later, Perry takes Autumn to a punk-cowboy mosh pit, a delightful but utterly random scene. When Outer Range finally goes full throttle off the rails in its closing stretch, it feels like an exhalation. (Worth noting: The season features two episodes directed by Amy Seimetz, who is no stranger to dreamlike storytelling.)

The show goes full hog with two of the Tillersons: Wayne, the aging patriarch (played by the ever reliable Will Patton, cranking the ham up to 11), and Billy, the aforementioned son singing to himself in tighty whities and the clearest vessel for the show’s bursts of rococo excesses. For most of the story, you’re not quite sure what his deal is or how dangerous he could be. You do know, however, that this dude is always singing. Here, Billy uses his pipes under the most peculiar of circumstances: Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” during a funeral, Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” during an attempted interrogation, Vanessa Williams’s “Save the Best for Last” while planning to kill someone. The partnership that emerges between Billy and Autumn is one of derangement; when they make out for the first time (suddenly, frantically), the camera swoons, sways, and pushes into their mouths, re-creating a sloppier version of the iconic “Cat Person” photograph. The moment is so abrupt, so awkward, and so bursting with color that it sends the last vestiges of Outer Range’s self-serious reality straight off a cliff. Everything that follows continues to be grim, but from there on out, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that the show is winking at you.

Royal’s humdrum western stoicism is made to feel thinner and perhaps more ridiculous in the face of Billy’s and Autumn’s mayhem energy. And so the show seems to float a version of this question: Whose response to the crush of modernity that’s steadily disassembling their way of life is more logical? How should one react to an inexplicable force ripping apart everything we know? Outer Range’s ponderous tone can be so pretentious as to be suffocating; I rolled my eyes at a billboard featured prominently in the final episodes that reads, “America tells you that the only things worth knowing are those which can be known. America is wrong.” But the show is audacious. It pushes toward inscrutability in a way that feels refreshing in the face of so much otherwise predictable television.

Outer Range Goes Off the Rails in the Best Way