WGN America is still seeking to define itself, having garnered acclaim for “Manhattan,” if less for “Salem.” With “Outsiders,” its newest drama, the Tribune programmer zeroes in on FX Lite territory, in an Appalachian-set series peppered with hints of “Sons of Anarchy” and “Justified,” and perhaps a pinch of “Mad Max” for good measure. Featuring David Morse and Thomas M. Wright (again terrific after his turn in “The Bridge”), the casting trumps much of the material, but the series quickly establishes a strong sense of place in the wilds of a still-untamed pocket of America.
At the center of it all are the Farrells, a rural clan that lives by its own brutal code and traditions, ensconced on the mountain it has occupied for 200 years. The group exists under what amounts to an uneasy truce with the townsfolk below, with members occasionally venturing down to thieve some necessary supplies, but otherwise minding their own business.
Enter, predictably, a corporate bad guy in Big Coal: A mining group is determined to evict the family – a plan that draws an uneasy rebuke from the local sheriff, Wright’s Wade Houghton, who has an unspecified history with the Farrells that prompts him to warn, “You do not want to mess with these people.”
Still, the politics in town are mirrored (again, predictably) by infighting on the mountain, which includes the return of the prodigal son, Asa (Joe Anderson), who has spent time living in the modern world and now wants to help his kin hold off the interlopers. None of that sits particularly well with Big Foster (Morse), the ostensible heir to tribal leadership, who chafes at waiting for his imperious mother (Phyllis Somerville) to step aside. General decor looks to be right out of “Deliverance” (production took place in Pennsylvania), but the biggest kudos go to the hairstyling department for coiffing what might be shaggiest series in recent memory.
Created by playwright-novelist Peter Mattei, working with “Rescue Me” veteran Peter Tolan, the show features too many situations that have a ring of familiarity, such as the triangle created by Asa’s return with his ex, G’Winveer (Gilllian Alexy), and Lil Foster (“Sons of Anarchy’s” Ryan Hurst), Big Foster’s bruising boy. Ditto for a subplot involving Hasil (Kyle Gallner), who becomes infatuated with a shy townie (Christina Jackson), to the point of selling moonshine to get his hands on money – a commodity for which the Farrells have no use.
“Outsiders” is slow going in its opening chapters, and the best hope for the 13-episode run is that the series does generally improve as it progresses, by the fourth and fifth episodes finding moments of dark humor, while hostilities between the corporate interests and the family gradually escalate. Although Morse is compelling as always – boozing, scheming and defiant by turns – the real standout is Wright as the stammering, weary sheriff, perhaps the most conflicted rural lawman since “One False Move.”
Whether any of that adds up to a sizable audience on a fledgling original-programming enterprise like WGN is anybody’s guess. From a conceptual standpoint, in fact, prospects might be better for “Underground,” another drama coming soon.
Still, “Outsiders” has at least delivered some extremely solid characters. And in the series game, if not the mining one, unearthing a few of those nuggets can be half the battle.