If you ask me, there’s nothing better than a good ole fashioned barn-burner horror story, and demonic possession is the horror tradition that just keeps on giving. The unstoppable and insidious nature of that which cannot be killed has a double-edged power: the futility of pure evil not easily vanquished without help from the clergy, and that nagging feeling deep in our subconscious whether what we’re viewing is actually fiction. In other words, if angels exist, why can’t demons?
Season one of The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman’s new show, Outcast, explores a small, barely-hanging-on small American town called Rome, the type of town where the chief of police plays poker with the town’s reverend in back rooms, people sleep with their doors unlocked, and everyone knows everyone else’s business. It’s an outward paradise of bygone rural charm, but behind closed doors even 8-year-old kids and church ladies harbor dark secrets.
The show is anchored by Kyle Barnes (a relevatory Patrick Fugit, all grown up post-Almost Famous), a loner shut-in still tormented by not only the horrific echoes of his abusive, possessed Mother, but also from the societal effects and judgment after he violently torpedoes literal demons from his Mother, ex-wife and daughter. He should be a hero, right? Not so fast. It seems our man Barnes is a demon magnet and almost everyone important to him gets possessed or somehow altered by dark forces. He discovered at a young age he can remove demons by literally punching the crap out of the resident demon to get it to leave. The formerly possessed walk around town with bruises and restraining orders against Barnes, including his own wife and daughter, and Barnes is a friendless reject.
Making sure Barnes doesn’t entirely disappear in his self-imposed exile is his half-sister, Megan Holter (Wrenn Schmidt). A springy redhead, she appears unannounced at his home to take him out grocery shopping, leaves a cell phone on his porch so he’ll call, and generally is the only thing he has even approximating family. Megan is married to one of the town’s “by the book” cops who cannot stand Barnes, but the two find ways to coexist. It seems that Megan, like many of the townsfolk, also has some dark shadows in her past.
Recognizing Barnes’ innate demon fighting power is the town’s colorful Reverend Anderson, (Philip Glenister), a total potty mouth who drinks, gambles, and in the course of the first four episodes, is shown to be active on the dating scene. He doesn’t sweat the small stuff. But when he’s not tending to his flock or removing weathered plastic flowers from his church graveyard, he is casting out demons from the town’s afflicted with the whole nine: holy water, Bible verses, harsh language, crosses. Soon, he realizes he’s gonna need a bigger boat, enlists Barnes as his aide, and the two start bustin’ ghosts.
Outcast is part body horror, part rumination on evil, and entirely gloomy. All of the familiar The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Conjuring possession elements are here: crazy fluids pouring out of bodies, total aggression, and terrifying unpredictability (we literally jumped a few times watching these episodes). What’s most satisfying, however, is when the show pushes beyond the thrills and rawness of possession and gives almost as much attention to the struggles we have just being good humans, being real with ourselves, and real with others.
Other key characters include Megan’s protective husband Mark, Chief of Police Giles (Reg E. Cathey), who is getting to know some secrets about his friends); Evan’s estranged wife Allison; and a “presence” named Sidney (Brent Spiner) who shows up midway through the season as a mysterious force.
This show really pushes beyond the ordinary and is made ten times more watchable with the excellent chemistry between Barnes and the Reverend. When the two finally meet up and unify their mission, it is impossible not to be riveted to the screen, even when the two aren’t fighting demons. The Reverend fast develops as a father figure for Barnes, who in return bolsters the reverend’s demon fighting powers. You just feel a little bit safer when they are together.
As Kirkman leads us from episode to episode being scared out of our heads, the horror is soon just another aspect to the fascinating lives of the townspeople of Rome. Possession becomes secondary to what you’re watching and what you care about, the same way that some of the zombie action was quickly replaced on The Walking Dead by your love/hate/concern for the characters. There is still a dreadful, gothic tone to Outcast, but Kirkman allows for moments of sunshine that can and do break through.
We supremely enjoyed the recently concluded Banshee and Strike Back, Cinemax’s original programs just dripping with violence, sex, and enough action to make one’s head spin. With Outcast, (already renewed for season two even before airing a single episode), the network continues its evolution in original programming as a bold, gleefully pulpy, and risk-taking network quietly putting up some of the best television moments of 2016.
The first episode of Outcast is available on-demand and on YouTube (above) new episodes air at 10pm ET Fridays on Cinemax and will all be available on-demand to Cinemax subscribers.