Outer Range Review
Science-fiction and the western. Two traditionally distinct film subgenres. One highly speculative, oftentimes but not exclusively dealing with elements the human mind can predict with incomplete knowledge at best, like the famous “first contact.” The other is regularly used as a showcase for what once was, a time of border towns where the law’s applicability was as dubious as the people who ran the show. There are exceptions of course in the western. But even modern depictions of the Midwest serve as a reminder that, well, it’s not New York or Los Angeles. Sometimes the two are melded with varying degrees of success. Cowboys and Aliens, anyone? On the flip side, there is Jordan Peele‘s Nope. Another new candidate: Outer Range, an 8-episode series that premiered on Prime Video this past spring.
Cast on the Ranch
Created by Brian Watkins (whose career background mostly centers on the theatre stage), Outer Range juggles a multitude of character storylines. Everyone must reckon with dramatic changes in their lives. It’s the nature of said changes for each that produces the layered, serpentine drama. Royal Abbott (Josh Brolin) is the patriarch of a cattle ranch that has been in the family for generations, only not his family. The range was passed on from his wife Cecilia’s side of the family (Lili Taylor). Times are getting rough, what with their wealthy neighbours the Tillermans wanting to settle a grievance by which a section of acres currently under Abbott control would go to them. Led by brothers Trevor (Matt Lauria), Luke (Shaun Sipos), and Billy (Noah Reid), they are in fact serving their own father’s bidding (Will Patton), who remains sick in bed at their beautiful estate.
And then there are the Abbott children. Adult children, really. Perry (Tom Pelphrey) is quiet in demeanour, stand-offish to an extent. One shouldn’t be too hard on him because his wife mysteriously disappeared without a trace almost a year ago. His 9-year-old daughter Amy (Olive Abercrombie), despite dealing with the same trauma, seems far livelier than he. Rhett (Lewis Pullman) is the other adult child who suffers a malaise that can only be cured by eventually leaving the ranch to do something else with his life, most notably bull riding.
All these people are about to have their lives changed even more so when two things occur. One, a young woman named Autumn (Imogen Poots) arrives out of nowhere one day on Abbott land. A friendly, if mysterious face, she only wants to camp out for a “short while”, a request to which Royal surprisingly acquiesces. Two, Royal makes the shocking discovery of a large, bottomless hole out in the west plain of the family pasture. Where does it come from, where does it lead to, and how many things can be thrown into it?
A Screenwriter’s and Actor’s Dream
Outer Range, while capably directed by a quartet of filmmakers, among them indie darling Amy Seimetz, is more than anything an actor’s and screenwriter’s dream. It offers a wide canvas, an open rage if you will, to explore intricate character relationships, be they between family members living with strife, with greedy rival neighbours, or with local law enforcement in the form of Deputy Sheriff Joy Hawk (Tamara Podemski). With 8 episodes, the longest running one hour and the shortest forty minutes, show creator and main scribe Brian Watkins (a few other writers land a hand on some episodes) has plenty of time to mine the treasures of what great drama promises. It also means he and his creative team need not be in a hurry to reveal and develop plot points.
In this regard, a show like Outer Range simultaneously shows off its strengths and some weaknesses. It helps that the roles are filled with a laundry list of capable thespians. Some are old veterans who can act like it’s nobody’s business, and some younger, lesser-known working actors hungry for that chance to star in what can be described as a relatively big, important streaming series for Prime Video. What other poetry can be waxed about Josh Brolin that hasn’t already been uttered in spoken word or print? His Royal is a subversively intriguing personality. He is certainly “the man” on the farm, yet it isn’t really his farm. It’s his wife’s, technically speaking. Of those two, Cecilia is the one with the most emotional investment, although that’s not to say Royal has none.
There are so many small and big threads that permeate through Outer Range’s 8-episode season. Creator Brian Watkins revels in the opportunity to do what he probably does best: write interesting, high-minded drama. Much of it works. Royal has found a strange, inexplicable manifestation on the family land that seemingly helps him evaporate, let’s call them items that cause problems. A fantastical band-aid solution presents itself out of nowhere. The bigger issues arise when the temporary solution is overused and fails to cover up more meaningful challenges.
Too Much of a Good Thing
As the old expression warns, one can’t have too much of a good thing. Too much water and one drowns. Too much food and one is gluttonous. In Outer Range’s case, there are simply too many storylines. Few, if any of them, could be characterized as being outright poor. Take, for example, Deputy Sheriff Joy. The character is of Native American decent (First Nations for Canadian readers) and is running for election to keep the position of Sheriff long term. The townsfolk don’t appear especially taken aback by the thought of having a woman or a Native Sheriff, but there are some subtle, underlying tensions, many of them political in nature. By the season’s end, the election hasn’t happened. What was the subplot’s purpose? Why not simply have Joy be the new Sheriff given that the citizens don’t bat much of an eye about her ethnicity anyhow?
For all the quality writing on display through strong dialogue and engaging twists and turns, as the season nears its climax, there is an underlying sense that one of two things risk occurring. Either far too many subplots will be rushed to inorganic conclusions or…the dreaded cliff-hanger ending. Why would a showrunner and creative team tie themselves to a season’s end with loose plot threads without the assurance of a second crack at finishing the job? Who knows. Maybe Brian Watkins and the company are highly confident that Amazon will see that a second go-around comes to light. We shall see.
Creating a streaming or television show based on such a high concept with deep themes is like walking a tightrope. Does one tell a full story with a beginning, middle, and end with maybe some wiggle room to tell more stories down the road, or does one follow, for all intents and purpose, the template that Outer Range does? Some things are mostly explained, others are loosely explained, and the rest are left begging for season 2.
No Out In Sight on the Range
That may sound like a fatal criticism. In some respects, it is. Why watch something that doesn’t have a conclusive ending, that lasts almost 8 hours long, without the promise of a later resolution? Under those circumstances, a person’s reticence towards watching it is understandable.
If one can get past that, and that may be a challenge, there is a lot of good stuff here. Hollywood could probably use more depictions of the modern Midwest. Outer Range feels honest and authentic. If anything, the personal dynamics are almost more interesting than the sci-fi twist. There could be a show about these characters without a bizarre, bottomless pit no one can explain. Even the revelation of what the pit is leads to more subplots that themselves don’t have definitive resolutions by the time the end credits roll on episode 8.
Should Amazon Studios, for whatever reason imaginable, not renew the show, fans will be left with a deliciously acted, beautifully shot, thematically layered series that leaves them hanging in the wind. If that were the case, some may dream of tossing Outer Range into a hole in the ground, to be forever forgotten.