This review originally ran with our SXSW 2016 coverage.
For a show about something as bombastically dramatic as demonic possession, it’s perhaps most surprising that Robert Kirkman’s latest series comes alive in its small touches and quiet allegories: a grotesque bug idling on a bedroom wall; crude graffiti outside of a church; a child’s primitive scrawling on the inside of a pantry door. The series is Outcast, a new TV show from The Walking Dead creator based on his ongoing comic book series of the same name, the first episode of which premiered at this year’s SXSW festival.
The Adam Wingard-helmed pilot opens as the camera lingers on a young boy in a disassociated state, staring down a monstrous insect sitting placidly in his bedroom. As the shot holds, the boy closes his mouth around the bug, crunching down on its skeleton and leaving a slick of its blood and innards across his face. It’s an impactful scene to say the least, and certainly an appropriately unsettling start to the horror series, but it isn’t until the boy wanders into the kitchen to witness his sister and mother arguing wearily and contentiously that the thesis of the show as an allegory for abuse and for personal, more metaphoric demons really begins to gel.
Outcast follows Kyle Barnes (played by the perfectly-cast Patrick Fugit), a young man with an unfortunate connection to demonic forces responsible for his abusive youth and broken adulthood. Set in Rome, a small town in the “Wild and Wonderful West Virginia,” the episode picks up with Kyle in his ramshackle home, snoozing fitfully on a mattress in his childhood bedroom. Fugit’s deadened countenance, which is in direct opposition to his youthful face, reveals a troubled childhood even before Kirkman and Wingard get a chance to. Eventually, Kyle is drawn out of his home by his loving but no-nonsense sister (Wrenn Schmidt) and by the gruff Reverend Anderson (a brilliant Philip Glenister), as he finds himself again embroiled with the demons he encountered in his childhood, this time in the body of the previously mentioned (and definitely possessed) child.
Much of the series’ first episode lives in flashbacks, which at first pass could seem like a detriment, but there’s enough economy of narrative to keep it plugging along through revelations of Kyle’s explosively violent childhood and sadly dissolved relationships while managing to lay the groundwork for a show with one foot in present crisis and the other mired in the scars of the past. But Outcast is still a Robert Kirkman show, and while it would be tempting for it to spend its runtime lingering in its abuse allegory, it isn’t too long before the pilot delivers a stream of shocking violence.
Much of the episode is devoted to a blissfully Friedkin-esque exorcism sequence, filled with plenty of by-the-book Exorcist homages, albeit gleefully zinged up for television screens of 2016. For anyone well-versed in the cinematic tradition of exorcisms, the sequence may not strike viewers as particularly scary, but it’s the sheer violence Kirkman and Wingard indulge in, including bone-crunching violence involving a child, that really makes the episode deliver a surprising amount of, well, punch.
Kirkman is forced to lay a lot of groundwork with the pilot, which means that the first episode suffers a bit from feeling slightly over-burdened and serious. But the grand scale ensures that the show’s world, which Kirkman has explained will expand well beyond the world of the comics as they are now, has plenty of places to go. Though the series won’t premiere until June 3, Cinemax has already renewed Outcast for a second season, which means plenty of more Kirkman in our future. And based on the show’s promising pilot, that’s a very good thing indeed.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television
Outcast premieres Friday, June 3rd on Cinemax.