‘Outer Range’ Pushes the Limits of the TV Landscape

If you like narrative without payoff and singing cowboys as a Greek chorus, Amazon Prime has your dream show

“There is a great void!” screams Royal Abbott (Josh Brolin) during a before-supper prayer with his family. Indeed, there is. In Outer Range, there’s a bottomless, time-bending void in the center of the Abbott family’s West Pasture. There’s a void at the center of Royal, whose past is murky, and there’s a void growing in the fragile strands that still hold his family together. The void is the unknown and the unspoken. It’s also just a big freakin’ hole into which you can, briefly, dump all your problems.

Part neo-Western sci-fi mélange mixed Lynchian absurdism, Outer Range is that rare show that makes the viewer work. Not simply for the answers to its many mysteries—which are perhaps beside the point—but to untangle the characters motives. The creator, Brian Watkins, is a playwright, and his mantra through production was “Uphold the wonder.” And he does. They do. The cast and the writers and directors and the sometimes too-dark cinematography all present wonder, bafflement, and an unerring sense that, however weird this show is, it isn’t as weird as our current reality. And, like the world in which Outer Range inhabits, the show refuses classification, but I’ll try anyway.

Outer Range is about a stoic, seemingly archetypal cowboy (Brolin) whose laconic, burying-things-down-deep American masculinity becomes the tragic Greek flaw that unravels his family. It starts when one of his sons kills a rival cowboy, escalates toward a cover-up of said killing, and wends its way through the past and future via the hole. But, this isn’t a sci-fi show as such. There’s no J.J. Abrams mystery box to unlock, though there are secrets to be found. Instead, the show asks a more pertinent question—what does an American family do when confronted by the unknown? It asks if God is manifest in the world, does he or it make up the awful as well as the good?

We meet Royal and his family as a land claim against them by a rival family threatens their way of life and as the aforementioned homicide threatens their freedom.  Into this none-too-stable environment comes the most mercurial character of all—a young hippie drifter woman with aspirations to cult leadership who serves as Royal’s primary foil. Autumn, played by an electric, manic Imogen Poots, believes all things are connected and destined. Brolin’s Royal is pretty sure the world is founded on chaos all the way down. That chaos vs. order plays out by way of faith over the course of eight episodes which see the Abbott family slowly undone by their own attempt to protect one another as Autumn tries to gain control over the void on their land.

Meanwhile, a Native American sheriff (the fabulous Tamara Podemski) investigates the murder and comes to suspect the Abbotts are behind it. The Abbotts desperately try to hang together during this ordeal, but the more they cling to the idea of family, the more that void in the West Pasture reminds them that said idea, whatever it had been in another era of America, is gone now. It’s not merely the cowboy way of life that’s under the microscope here, but the way of life of the American family.

This is not a show about answers. While it provides some by the last episode of the season, the creator is instead preoccupied by what mystery, what the unfathomable, does to ordinary people. The show seems to suggest one either embraces the unknowable or becomes undone by it. It’s all a matter of perspective. The characters grapple with their versions of faith, or lack thereof, as they come to understand the void in the ground, themselves, or the American ideal. An on-the-nose billboard in a later episode reads: “America tells you the only things worth knowing are those that can be known. America is wrong.” Along with “uphold the wonder,” this could be the raison d’etre of the show.

Brolin and Poots carry the drama, providing performances that should, were this a show a critical darling, earn them Emmy nominations. But that isn’t the way Hollywood works. In fact, this show has, tangentially, a lot to say about how tinsel town operates in terms of narrative. Viewers expect a certain number of reveals per episode. We expect certain arcs to complete. TV has trained us since childhood to recognize what is “the well-made play.” Outer Range pushes back against all that. I’ve seen some call it lazy writing, but it isn’t. Instead, it challenges preconceived notions of drama. Aristotle, somewhere (perhaps in a very bottomless hole) rolls over in his regimented dramatic grave. All the elements of what we recognize as “prestige drama” are here, but slightly off. It is as if Watkins uses the audiences’ expectations as the foundation for something different.

At the same time, the show never pretends to be other than what it is. Even in the depth of well-trod family dynamics, this show makes a unique mark. When is the last time you saw a woman (in this case the great Lili Taylor) bite herself with the teeth of a dead bear cub out of penance for helping her family cover up a homicide? When’s the last time the reserved cowboy patriarch let loose with rants against the Christian God and musings on the Greek God Cronus?

Throughout the show, the Greek analogy builds, and Noah Reid (Schitt’s Creek) becomes a kind of chorus—literally, as he bursts out into song at odd moments, sometimes in his tighty whiteys. But the pop songs he sings hold lyrics that portend what’s to come in the show or comment on what has been, and our Apollo is a joyful weirdness that always reminds you the show, like all drama, is artifice.

Outer Range never feels like it’s trying to sell you anything and that, in itself, is unique on the television landscape. In an age where prestige TV has codified rules for science fictional narrative, Outer Range breaks most of them. As the “Golden Age of TV” begins to congeal into the old formulas it once refuted, Outer Range is a welcome excursion into the genuinely bizarre and meaningful. Jump in the hole and hope this gets a second season. We deserve more TV like this.

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Chris Lites

Chris is a writer/designer in the tabletop games industry and perpetually works on a novel.

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