Based on “Outcast’s” ominous teasers, one might assume that it represents yet another piece of creator and executive producer Robert Kirkman’s exploration of all things occult. But instead of Kirkman’s zombies, the rotting stars of his best-selling comics and hit series “The Walking Dead,” in “Outcast,” viewers are introduced to demons and scenes of possession.
“Outcast” even opens with a familiar horror film cliché: the possessed child. Slack-jawed and slobbering, the afflicted kid stares at a cockroach on his bedroom wall before violently crushing the creature with his own skull. The fun builds from there.
Pull back for a wide shot at the story’s fictional setting, though, and you’ll find that the dark forces at play are both literal and figurative. The most powerful entities are almost entirely metaphorical, and ultimately, “Outcast” is not about the slaughter. Rather, the show’s power comes from the characters’ hopes of connecting with others in their fractured community, which is haunted by isolation. “Outcast” wants us to feel for these poor souls before all Hell breaks loose.
Is it a horror series? Yes, at first. But “Outcast” quickly pivots to become a suspense-laden, psychological examination of inner shadows – the undesirable aspects of ourselves that we strive to keep hidden – and the figurative demons constantly flitting around us all. Everyone in the small town of Rome, W. Va., is engaged in a death match with evil spirits, in the form of bad reputations or traumas scratching just beneath the skin.
Like the Image comic book series that was developed alongside the TV title, “Outcast” tells the tale of ragged, titular hero Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit). Kyle is an isolated shut-in as the story begins, which suits most of the townsfolk in the crumbling town just fine. Rome is a place where everybody knows everything about everyone else, and whispers abound concerning Barnes’s grim, violent life.
No reasonable person would believe the truth about Barnes, which is that he has hidden himself in the decaying home he once shared with his mentally ill mother (Julia Crockett) in order to protect others from the malevolence he attracts.
But the town’s minister, Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister), has an inkling of what’s going on, largely due to his own experiences with possessions. Rome is rife with them, the latest afflicting an eight-year-old boy. Though Anderson does his best to push back against the sinister tide by performing exorcisms and delivering fire-and-brimstone Sunday sermons, his efforts are insufficient. So he recruits Barnes to his cause, in large part due to his knowledge of what really happened to Barnes and his mother long ago.
Fugit depicts Barnes with the scraggly desperation of a starving, wounded animal. With his poignant portrayal securely holding each hour’s center, “Outcast” quickly mutates from a creepfest into a tragedy about doubt, coping and human frailty.
Oh, there are queasy moments, and a certain “exorcism of the week” element at play within the first few episodes, although these are not handled in a rote fashion. Rather, as Barnes and Anderson touch the darkness coursing through Rome, viewers may end up contemplating the insidious nature of ordinary evil — and the frightening fact that no amount of prayer can banish it.
Glenister’s Reverend is an amiable warrior whose devotion to good is leavened by a unapologetic flair for crass language and a paternal protectiveness toward Barnes. The actor’s performance is key in keeping the show’s energy from becoming unsustainably dour, and he and Fugit have marvelous chemistry.
Also worth noting is “Outcast’s” writing for Wrenn Schmidt as Kyle’s adopted sister, Megan Holter. A caring woman who won’t let Kyle to fade into non-existence, Megan demonstrates strength of spirit and will as she navigates the difficult role of Kyle’s nurturer while remaining loyal to her husband, Mark (David Denman), a town cop.
Schmidt makes Megan doting but far from soft, a trait that grows in importance as more details emerge about her own inner darkness. Reg E. Cathey gives his portrayal of as Mark’s boss, Chief Giles, a welcome touch of enigmatic vigor; Giles is a solid man whose motivations aren’t always obvious, but who clearly should not be toyed with.
Viewers tuning in with an expectation of classic Cinemax-style extremity may be disappointed, but “Outcast” may be a sign of what’s to come in the cable network’s next evolutionary phase. Having retired its adrenaline-loaded series “Banshee” and “Strike Back,” Cinemax is moving beyond bone-breaking action and blunt sexuality in favor of more atmospheric, thematically challenging content like its critically acclaimed medical drama “The Knick.”
There is plenty of shock and depravity to go around in “Outcast,” but after the pilot, most of the show’s graphic, gory moments occur in flashes brief enough terrify without overpowering the tale’s psychological punch. Some of the worst violence in “Outcast” is verbal; the implication of what people are saying or thinking is often as bad, if not worse, than what they do. But what is possession, if not the planting of an invasive seed that blossoms and strangles a person’s best nature?