Like The Walking Dead, Cinemax’s Outcast is a television show based on a Robert Kirkman comic. Unlike The Walking Dead, however, the idea began as a television show instead of the other way around. In 2011, a studio executive casually approached Kirkman at a business luncheon and asked him what his next project would be. Somewhat on the spot, Kirkman outlined his idea for Outcast. The executive bought the unofficial pitch immediately.
Outcast was announced, after two years of development, in 2013. The next year, Image released the first issue of the still continuing comic series. The show itself, however, did not arrive until earlier this summer on Cinemax, and despite becoming the lowest-rated show on a “prestige” cable network, Cinemax had enough confidence in the series (and the Kirkman brand) to give it a second season before the first had even aired. As the dust has settled on the premiere season, which completed its run a few weeks ago, the question is if Outcast is worth investing in for the many who have not yet seen it?
The answer is yes. Mostly.
Though the series is nothing like Kirkman’s better-known The Walking Dead, there are some parallels. Kirkman’s idea for The Walking Dead was to look beyond at the end of the typical zombie movie, after most everyone has died, and explore the characters living in the aftermath. He does something similar here with exorcism stories, exploring the life of Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit) and his small-town community after a demon has been exorcised from his mother.
The exorcism here was performed by Kyle himself, who has an especially morbid superpower: He’s capable of removing the Devil from possessed people, usually through acts of violence, which doesn’t always play well in a small town like Rome, West Virginia when the demon-possessed is a small child. The results of Kyle’s exorcisms are also a mixed bag. The boy he nearly beat to death returned to normal (minus a few bruises and broken bones) after his exorcism, but his mother has been laying catatonic in a nursing home bed since her exorcism many years ago. The town blames Kyle.
Meanwhile, the demonic possessions continue to converge in Kyle’s orbit. Not only are others in Rome falling prey to Satan, but an unexplained supernatural event has led to the estrangement of Kyle’s wife (Kate Lyn Sheil of House of Cards and You’re Next) and their child together. It’s also created friction between Kyle, his sister, Megan (Wrenn Schmidt) and her husband, Mark (David Denman, aka, Roy from The Office). Kyle’s partner-in-exorcism is Reverend Anderson, played by the exceptional British television actor Philip Glenister (Ashes to Ashes, Life on Mars). He consistently fails to exorcise demons the old fashioned way — holy water, Bible scripture, and a lot of raving — and has to rely on Kyle, the town outcast. Their relationship is a rocky one, in part because Reverend Anderson is jealous of Kyle’s abilities, and in part because Anderson is a lunatic who too often looks for answers where there are none in his faith.
The Outcast pilot, directed by Adam Wingard (You’re Next, V/H/S) and written by Kirkman, is strong. It’s good old-fashioned Southern gothic horror. Wingard puts the West Virginia setting (here played by Rock Hill, South Carolina) to fine use — the town looks like a trailer park has been dropped into the Blair Witch woods. It’s an unnerving hour, creepy and often disturbing, that lays out a few compelling mysteries: Why does Kyle Barnes have these powers? Why are the possessed drawn to him? And why exactly is he estranged from his family?
Like The Walking Dead, most of the big questions are designed to be answered at the end of the series. Kirkman is already on record as saying he knows how Outcast the comic will end. It remains to be seen whether Cinemax will give him the opportunity to bring the series to a close. Unfortunately, that means that once those questions get posed, Outcast shifts from mystery to character drama, which is a mixed blessing. It’s slow of pace, and while Kyle becomes more interesting the more we learn about him, the same can’t be said for the other lead character, Reverend Anderson, who eschews his role as voice of reason about midway through the season and takes on the trappings of a genre stereotype.
The biggest draw here, aside from Fugit — who trades in the wide-eyed innocence and ’70s hair style of his Almost Famous character for denim, a thick beard, and a perpetually dour expression — is the outstanding character actor Reg E. Cathey, who plays the local sheriff. He has the unenviable task of toeing the line between his loyalties to his friends and his obligations as an officer of the law. He’s a skeptic, but a trusting one. Every scene he is in is better for his presence.
Viewers have to make peace early on with the fact that the series is not going to answer many of our questions, at least in the first season. The characters, however, are compelling enough to pull the series through some slow patches — especially if it’s being bingewatched — and the lingering questions are enough to keep us captivated as the series doles out information one crumb at a time. Friday Night Lights‘ Scott Porter also brings some excitement in a villainous role late in the season, while the acting is buoyed by a number of that guy character actors (Lee Tergesen, Toby Huss, Abraham Benrubi, etc.) who dot the series with highlights.
Outcast is not for everyone — an affinity for horror, and specifically the exorcism subgenre is a must — but it’s better than some of its television cousins, like American Horror Story, because it remains tethered to a believable world. The dead stay dead, and it never relies on shocking deaths or surprise twists to keep us invested. In fact, the lack of twists through the first season and the anticlimactic finale may be its greatest weakness. It’s a character drama disguised as a horror story, and to both its benefit and detriment, it never strays from its mission to tell a story not about the supernatural elements, but the people who are affected by them.