‘Outsiders’ Series Premiere Review: Sons of Appalachia

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Still feeling a hole in your heart- and TV schedule- from the loss of “Sons of Anarchy”? Have I got a show for you! The latest from WGN, who are slowly-but-surely creeping up in the cable TV ranks, thanks to shows like “Salem” and “Manhattan,” “Outsiders” is the latest feather in their cap of solid programming. Watch your back, FX and AMC!

In the premiere, we meet the Farrell clan, a group of Appalachian Mountain dwellers that have been living mostly off the grid their entire lives, eschewing “normal” society in favor of living by their own rules. However, what happens when society catches up to them? Expect to find out over the course of the series.

We begin with an outsider amongst the outsiders- Asa (Joe Anderson, “Across the Universe”)- contemplating suicide after having left his family behind to join the rest of the world, only to find himself as alone as ever, though we don’t quite find out exactly what happened to him. Stopping short of doing it, he instead opts to try and worm his way back in with his former people, after seeing (or more likely hallucinating) a pack of wolves behind him.

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I’m going to assume that the wolves are a metaphor for his old life, come to call him back where he belongs- or at least thinks he does. Also inclined to think he deserves a second shot is Appalachian matriarch Lady Ray Farrell (Phyllis Somerville, “The Big C,” chewing up scenery like it’s going out of style), who speaks in the “old language,” thus making her largely unintelligible, at least to this viewer.

However, from what I could gather, she speaks of an olden prophecy that says an impending battle will come to pass between the “outsiders” of the real world and themselves, with one of them serving as an “angel” that will save them all, while another will prove to be a “devil” that will be their undoing. Since the former is thought to be one who returns after leaving them initially, she pegs Asa as the one, seeking his help in reading a notice that has been posted on the outskirts of their land.

True to the prophecy, it’s an eviction notice, as a group of coal mining representatives have won a battle to take over the Farrell’s land and start mining coal there. However, first they have to run the Farrells off, which, as Deputy Sheriff Wade (Thomas M. Wright, “The Bridge”) seems to know all too well, is easier said than done. The community just below the Farrell’s land has been uneasy bedfellows with them since time out of mind, with the former tending to let the latter get away with near-murder for as long as Wade can remember.

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We see an example of this, as a group of the Farrrells, led by Big Foster (David Morse, “Treme”), the eldest son of Lady Ray, rages into town on ATVs, actually driving into a Wal-Mart type store and stealing a bunch of stuff. However, they stop short of stealing guns, being smart enough to know that doing so will bring unwanted attention from the FBI, who could shut them down in earnest.

The store owner reports the theft, but stops short of pressing charges, knowing what going against the clan might get him, much to the shock of new Deputy McCue (David Dale McCue, “Those Who Kill”), who clearly doesn’t know how such things work like Wade. Also seemingly clueless is their boss, Sheriff Tom Weinike (Kevin O’Rourke, “Boardwalk Empire”), who tasks Wade with spearheading the eviction of the Farrell’s, much to his chagrin. Knowing full well this is going to be easier said than done, Wade treads carefully as he can in the matter, but clearly knows it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

However, the real problem is that certain members of the Farrell clan are fascinated by elements of “normal” society, despite Lady Ray’s warnings that such notions will only serve to help bring them down. For instance, Ray has banned all firearms from the premises, but son Foster is determined to get some, by any means necessary. And obviously, they like some of the other trappings, i.e. the ATVs- not to mention the ladies.

On the one hand, given that the authorities are going to come calling sooner than later, he has a point in wanting to arm themselves properly, as they wouldn’t likely stand a chance otherwise. On the other hand, they’ve survived just fine without them for years, so maybe in doing so, they’re actually hastening their own demise.

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Whatever the case may be, in no time things start to go south quick, as, in an effort to obtain some guns, Foster leads a team into town to break into a local man’s house that they know to possess them and steal his guns. Unfortunately for him, his little boy, also fascinated by the idea of the outside world, sneaks into his father’s truck and comes along, despite his father’s warnings to stay out of it.

Opting not to turn back, Foster decides to let the boy tag along as a lookout, in lieu of his other team member Hasil (Kyle Gallner, “Veronica Mars”) being absent. Hasil is likewise fascinated by the “outsiders” and has become smitten with a clerk at the store they robbed, Sally-Ann (Christina Jackson, also of “Boardwalk Empire”), who he tries to romance, but is wary of him getting her into trouble, which seems to be a wise stance on her part.

Along with Foster for the B&E is Asa, who he busts out of the “box,” where he has been held for over half a year since his return. Foster mistrusts Asa, and is especially wary of him since Lady Ray announced that he would be released soon and allowed to rejoin their clan in earnest. The plan appears to be to kill Asa and make him the scapegoat for the theft, at least in part, but before he can, he’s alerted to the presence of local neighbors, who hear them breaking into the man’s house and form an ad-hoc posse to stop them.

Alas, in the ensuing shoot-out, Foster’s son is killed, thus fulfilling Lady Ray’s promise that bringing guns into the group would only cause trouble. Foster isn’t ready to allow that he made a mistake, though, blaming Asa for the situation, claiming that things only started to go bad when he returned.

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He also takes his frustrations out on Hasil, who he later discovers has stolen some of the clan’s moonshine, aka the “Farrell’s Wine” of the episode title, and sold it off to the “outsiders” for cash. As payback, they burn his money and chop off several of his fingers in retaliation. Ouch! Guess he won’t be stealing anymore.

To make matters even worse, Foster suffocates his own mother, stopping short of killing her, but putting her into a coma. This does not go unnoticed by the women of the clan, who clearly suspect Foster of being responsible.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the drug dealer that Hasil sold the “wine” to, Butch (Barrett Hackney, “Adventureland”), in turn sold it to a teenager, who gets a bit carried away in drinking it at a party and goes home wasted and kills his father in a drunken rage. Problem is, his father was one of the coal miner representatives from earlier that wanted the Farrells “taken care of.” What goes around comes around, I guess, at least in a roundabout way. Chances are, none of this is going to end well, though.

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So, what we have here is basically an expansion of a similar plotline on “Justified”- which makes sense, as one of the writers here, Ryan Farley, used to work for that show- combined with a healthy dose of “Sons of Anarchy.” Co-star Ryan Hurst (himself a vet of “SOA”), who plays Foster’s son, “Little Foster,” calls it “Mad Max-meets-Little House on the Prairie,” which is hilarious, if not entirely wrong in theory. (I admittedly have never seen the latter, but from what I know, it sounds about right.)

Other writers on the show are vets from everything from “Fargo” to “Private Practice” to, of all things, “Gossip Girl,” which is certainly an interesting mix. Creator Peter Mattei is best-known for the movie “Love in the Time of Money,” though he used to be a writer for “Clarissa Explains it All”! Factor in directors known for “Weeds,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Parks and Recreation,” and “Californication,” and you have quite a motley crew of creators onboard.

Be that as it may, for the most part, it works, even though it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where a lot of this is headed. My guess is that it won’t end well, to say the least. However, I don’t doubt that they will drag it out as much as possible, what with this being an ongoing series that I assume WGN wants to continue as long as they can. Still, this was an undeniably effective premiere, with some solid characterization in certain places and stealthy plotting.

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Granted, some characters remain pretty vague, notably the aforementioned “Little Foster” and most of the women on the show, which I suppose is to be expected on a show like this, but hopefully won’t remain the case. Aside from Lady Ray, who is sadly down for the count at the moment, the most promising female character is easily G’Winn Farrell (Gillian Alexy, “Royal Pains”), who, like Ray, isn’t afraid to speak her mind and march to the beat of her own drummer. There also seems to be a history between her and Asa that could be interesting.

The tone also needs a bit work, as for all the seriousness of what’s going on for the most part, certain aspects of it bordered on self-parody, notably the whole “clan-speak” aspect of the show, which was a bit silly. Granted, some particular regional dialects are tricky to pull off, least of all when they’re likely making it up to a certain extent, but add to that certain flourishes and it can border on laughable, as it does here from time to time.

Still, it’s a small quibble, and overall, I really enjoyed the show and will definitely be continuing to tune in week-to-week. Besides, I was in dire need of something to fill the void of “SOA” and “Justified,” and this definitely fits the bill. Only time will tell if it smoothes out the rough edges and becomes something more than a guilty pleasure, but for now, it’s worth checking out if you like this sort of thing.

OUTSIDERS

What did you think of the “Outsiders” premiere? Will you continue to watch? Did you particularly like any of the characters? How about the cast in general? What did you think of the set-up? Any predictions on where this is all headed, and how they could prolong the inevitable? Did it remind you of any real-life scenarios, notably the whole Oregon showdown thing? (Nice timing on that one, BTW, however unintentional.) Sound off on this and more down below and I’ll check back in with an update later in the season!