If you’re going to portray Hollywood hillbilly stereotypes, make sure you drive them over the mountain and off the cliff on the other side. That’s the only order given by the bosses at WGN America to the producers of “Outsiders,” cable television’s latest attempt to capture the essence of simple country folk coping with the modern world.
Just two shows into the 14-episode season (Tuesday nights, check your cable listing) it’s beginning to look like mission accomplished.
The producers inform the program “tells the story of the Farrell clan, a family of outsiders who’ve been in these parts since before anyone can remember. Living off the grid and above the law on their mountaintop homestead, they’ll protect their world and defend their way of life using any means necessary.”
That’s right. The family’s name is Farrell, as in feral, human in appearance, descended from domesticated stock, yet living free and wild in the Appalachian hills above Blackburn, Kentucky, for so many generations now incest has become the norm.
“Outsiders” begins with return of prodigal son Asa Farrell (played by Joe Anderson), who finds himself standing on a bridge at night in Blackburn, straddling the abyss between sin city and the pious life of a forgotten rural upbringing, forced to choose between leaping to his death, blowing his brains out with the pistol stuck down the back of his lowrise jeans, or taking the first tentative step toward home, knowing he left under bad circumstances and his return may not be welcome.
Fade to black.
Flash forward six months.
Asa finds himself caged in the woods while the Farrell clan ponder his fate. Big Foster (David Morse), poised to become the clan’s next leader or “Brennan,” insists Asa must be banished. Prophecy intervenes via outgoing Brennan Lady Ray Farrell (Phyllis Somerville) and the timely arrival of an eviction notice from the Big Coal company.
Funny thing, though: The entire clan is literally illiterate. No one, not even spooky pseudo sorcerous Lady Ray, can cipher a stitch. Reading, righting and arithmetic are strictly forbidden on Shay Mountain. No reason has been given yet. Baffled by the one-page eviction notice, Witchiepoo calls for the kid in the cage because he’s a known “book-reader.”
(This literal illiteracy will pose an obstacle to suspension of disbelief for the remainder of the series. If the hillbillies can’t read, how do they determine what to steal at the Big Box store? Who keeps track of the moonshine business, the clan’s only visible source of income, or their currency, consisting of assorted hand-carved animals and other homemade objects? What about the scary stuff, like electricity and the bible? Is anything written down?)
Asa informs Lady Ray that the eviction notice commands everyone to leave Shay Mountain, or they will be forcibly removed by Big Coal and the Crockett County Sheriff’s Office. Lady Ray ponders this news then conjures up some prophecy on the spot: Armageddon is upon them, marked by the return of Asa, who will lead them to victory over the forces of darkness! Or at least teach them all to read.
This doesn’t go down well with Big Foster, Little Foster (Ryan Hurst) and Bhradain Shay (Ed Heavey). The cousins have been breeding together so long not even the show’s writers can keep the last names straight. Hill people fornicate freely and often, even at public gatherings. It’s all good. No mutations so far. These three alpha male outsider insiders oppose allowing outsider Asa inside the outsider clan.
Fair-skinned ginger G’Win Farrell (Gillian Alexy) is Little Foster’s squeeze but she and Asa have in the past shared things far more personal than mere last names. Now that he’s back from ten years in Sodom and Gomorrah (California), she’s hot for Asa. “I heard you were a gigolo and a philosophy professor,” she teases. Pimping and pandering never sounded so good. In a nod to 1960’s communal life, Little Foster says G’Win can fornicate with whomever she wants while behind her back he plots Asa’s murder.
Meanwhile, civilization’s encroachment continues below in the fair city of Blackburn, where Crockett County Deputy Sheriff Wade Houghton (Thomas M. Wright) walks the line between granting get-of-jail-free cards to drug-dealing teens and gobbling the oxycontin he confiscates from them. When informed by Big Coal’s WASPy-looking board of directors to evict the “retard hillbilly animals,” Wade tells them, “You don’t know who you’re messing with.”
Young Hasil Farrell (Kyle Callner) happily demonstrates how quickly a good Farrell can go bad. Blessed with deer-in-the-headlights innocence, the kilt-wearing millennial hillbilly is just along for the ride when the clan, astride a fleet of ratted-out quads, invades the local big box store. In mid-blitzkrieg, Hasil sashays up to African-American sales clerk Sally-Ann (Christina Jackson) and orders her to “Look into my eyes when I’m talking to you.”
Perhaps confused by the white people rampaging up and down the aisles and all the smoke belching from the vehicles, Sally-Ann interprets Hasil’s command as an awkwardly delivered pick-up line.
The next afternoon, Hasil returns to the store and ask Sally-Ann out on a date. She informs him the hand-carved birds he carries around in his pockets and tries to pay everybody with aren’t legal tender. “Robbery” is not Sally-Ann’s idea of an ideal night out, so Hasil goes off in search of money.
In a solo journey reminiscent of the late Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle,” Hasil meets a pair of young adults, a drug dealer and his transexual lover, who inform the kilt-wearing wonder that gender is just a social construct and city folks will pay good money for moonshine. He replies the clan has just cooked up the latest batch of “Farrell Wine,” moonshine as infamous as its name sounds.
Hasil pilfers a few jugs from the family stash and sells them to the drug dealer for $40 per bottle. By the time he gets paid, it’s past Sally-Ann’s curfew. Crestfallen, Hasil offers to walk her home to “Coon Holler.”
“We don’t call it that anymore, at least nice people don’t!,” she retorts, beginning to suspect that despite mountain boy’s transgender attire, his creator failed to install a micro-aggression meter. But for better or worse, a woman in love believes she can fix her man, and we’ve got the makings of “Romeo and Juliet” on our hands, presuming Shakespeare had written in a land where trigger thoughts are forbidden.
I became convinced the producers of “Outsiders” were truly willing to go over the top when they snuffed out the Big Coal CEO at the end of episode one. Turns out one of the drug-addicted teens the deputy sheriff cut loose happened to be the CEO’s kid.
The ungrateful brat buys a jug of Farrell wine from the bi-curious drug dealer, chugs down half of it by himself at a high school kegger, staggers home and barfs up his stomach lining in the sink, picks up a kitchen knife and fatally stabs his concerned father, the Big Coal CEO, in the chest.
Later, the kid tells police his dad looked like “the devil.” Because moonshine.
The battle between Big Coal and Farrell is joined, but first Big Foster performs the hillbilly death grip on Lady Ray’s face, placing her in a deep coma from which she may never recover. Now who will be the Brennan, Big Foster or book-reading traitor Asa Farrell?
Asa makes his case to the people:
“I left this mountain ten years ago and yes, I was lost. I rob, stole, cheated, lied, I have sinned. I lived in a building that was 500-feet-tall! Communes of so-called holy men, liars, all of them. I acquired money, spent it on women and poisons. Their world is of a darkness. For them there is no respect nor tolerance for outsiders like us. When they look at us, these mountains, they don’t see us and our chillens … what they see is millions of dollars waiting to get dug up and burnt.”
“He’s a doomsayer!” accuses Big Foster, conscious that half the clan finds Asa’s sermon portrays their predicament with some degree of accuracy. Maybe there’s something to this prophecy thing after all! Lady Ray being out of commission and unable to reconfirm events, the gathered clan reaches a unanimous decision on the best way forward, screeched out by the next oldest witch in line.
“Pit fight at the next quarter moon!”
Keeping with the medieval theme, a pit fight is similar to a jousting match, conducted on ratted-out quads instead of horses, the knights wearing repurposed sports equipment for armor and wielding makeshift caveman clubs instead of lances. The wiry Asa is over-matched by the bearish Little Foster, but the latter fights with the pressure of knowing a loss means being disowned by Big Foster.
No more spoilers here. Catch the second episode of “Outsiders” on WGN America while you can. The first episode, in which we learn feral hillbillies don’t do books, is already getting hard to find. Perhaps you can go too far over the top. But everyone loves a pit fight.