Review: The Outsiders 1×1 (US: WGN America)

Why has this been made?

In the US: Tuesdays, 9pm ET, WGN America
In the UK: Not yet acquired

When it comes to America, I’m an outsider. I’m not from America, I’ve not lived in America and I have no American relatives. Sure, I’ve been to many parts of America, watched stupid amounts of American TV and movies, worked for an American company, got married in America, done American studies at (secondary) school and even had an I-visa that allowed me to stay and work in the US for up to five years if I’d wanted.

But none of that makes me American and it certainly doesn’t qualify me to understand why The Outsiders exists. 

In a way, I imagine liking The Outsiders is the US equivalent of someone English train-spotting or Morris dancing. These are quintessentially English things that even a lot of English people have trouble understanding, but which the rest of the world looks at as though the devotee in question should have an entire chapter of the DSM dedicated to them, and maybe the entire country itself should be sown with salt. Why on Earth would anyone do these things?

The Outsiders isn’t without antecedents, either. An everyday tale of an inbred family of Southeners, sticking by their own kind, obeying a stern family figure, living by their own rules, drinking moonshine, racing all over the place, breaking whatever laws they want while the cops try and fail to catch them? The Dukes of Hazzard was there first, obviously.

Even if you didn’t get any of the subtext about Southerners or know anything much about the US, the The Dukes of Hazzard‘s popularity wasn’t a real mystery, since you could still enjoy the car chases or whichever one of the Duke family you fancied the most.

But the existence of The Outsiders is as mystifying to me as the thematically similar Sons of Anarchy. I don’t get why you’d want to watch a show about a bunch of dirty, unattractive mountain men who go round stealing, poisoning, shooting people, lopping each others’ fingers off and suffocating their mothers in the name of family law. If this was The Dukes of Hazzard, I’d be on Boss Hogg’s side, and here I’m on the side of the sheriff (Thomas M Wright) and the FBI guys who want to evict the Family Chromosomeless from their mountain home in favour of the evil mining company who’ve just bought the land.

I can theorise it’s all about some nostalgia for the Wild West, for small government, for constitutional rights governing property, the need for a strong family, et al. Maybe it’s because the Duck Dynasty guys are better fictionalised than in reality. But if to get a strong family you need to stick one of your members in a cage for a few weeks for the crime of having ‘gone travelling’, maybe a strong family isn’t worth it, and things like medicine, proper plumbing and shaving are much better ideas?

To be fair to the show, The Outsiders is about as smart a drama as you can make about a family of 200 or so cousins, only one of whose members can read. Compared to the bigots you might have been imagining, the ‘Ferrells’ are actually something rather different, accepting of black and trans women alike. Their strange family society, which has evolved over 200 years to shun money and has its own royal family, complete with codes of etiquette, is intriguing, too.

But The Outsiders is still about a bunch of people who’ll ride quad bikes into a supermarket and steal what they want with impunity, because they know no one’s coming after them. Are they the equivalent of The Krays? Are they Kentucky ‘legends’? Or are they the equivalent of ‘travellers‘ in the UK? Is, as one of the cast describes it, ‘Mad Max meets Little House On The Prairie‘ a good thing in US terms or a bad thing?

I just don’t know. And maybe you have to be American to truly know if The Outsiders is a good or a bad programme. But given how many Australians there are in the cast, maybe not. So I’ll go with bad.

  • Mark Carroll

    “Justified” had that mining company land acquisition arc too, perhaps that's a common theme in real-life rural America. I find rural Southerners interesting because they're both so culturally different from me and (at least after I move back to the US) quite accessible. I could buy land there myself if I wanted, goodness knows it's cheap. For instance, I used to chat with a lady from Mississippi whose job as accounts receivable manager for an firm of architects seemed to include harvesting her boss' vegetables and getting his raccoon-hunting gear together for him, and one of my employees driving in rural Ohio found a guy selling AK-47's at the roadside (I trusted his judgment: his father was a firearms instructor); I chatted to one guy actually who was trying to run a factory in rural Appalachia and his biggest hiring challenge was finding people who could actually turn up reliably at 9am. Similarly, with the first season of “True Detective”, the people they met were more interesting to me than the plot. One of the surprises for me of actually living in the USA was just how accurate an idea of it their exported media had given me, even down to the steam coming from the manhole covers in the road (which I'd always just assumed was dramatic effect)! Driving through rural West Virginia, Arkansas, etc. was eye-opening: in some regions it wasn't clear for many of the abodes which were actually inhabited because few looked actually fit for human habitation, so goodness knows what it is like further from the through-routes.

  • Mark Carroll

    (I did like “Winter's Bone” (2010) for similar reasons.)

  • I remember going through Baltimore on a train and thinking that I was glad it only stopped for about 5 minutes, since judging by the houses around the station, that was plenty for me.

    Interesting about Mississippi et al. But I'm just not sure about the fascination the US has with making these shows about these people. But then I don't really get why they love serial killer shows so much, either.

  • Mark Carroll

    Yeah, I don't get the serial killer thing either.

  • JustStark

    Serial killers? Obvious if you think about it. With a standard murder mystery, the detective has to work out whodunnit, but there's no particular time pressure or jeopardy. The killer might get away with it, which is an affront to justice, but nobody else is likely going to die.

    But with a serial killer, you get 'we have to find him before he kills again!', so time pressure and jeopardy, for free, and without having to come up with some convoluted Kind Hearts and Coronets-style reason why the killer wants to kill multiple people — most people who aren't already, say, drug dealers or gang members and therefore likely already known to the police so there's no mystery, having motive to kill at most one other person. But with a serial killer the very fact they're a serial killer is their motive, so that's easy.

    Also, if you want to drag things out / provide extra clues / just have more blood, the serial killer can kill as many victims as you like, again, something which your standard murderer doesn't. And they can kill seemingly unrelated victims in a way that, again, allows things to be dragged out because if someone who actually had a proper motive to kill people was going through their list, then it would quickly become obvious that, say, everybody in line to a particular title was being killed off.

    So anyway, yes, popularity of serial killer programmes I think boils down to the fact that by eliminating the need to come up with motives, and providing an excuse for a body count as high as you like, they eliminate quite a lot of the plotting problems for a crime story / series at a stroke. So if you want to make a programme about a detective / team of detectives, but you can't be bothered to come up with loads of murderers with motives and stuff, serial killers are your salvation.

    I only know Baltimore from The Wire and The Corner, so I think if I found myself there I would probably just hide under a chair and cry.

  • Mark Carroll

    Aha. It's more about convenience for writers than because of a particular fascination of the audience.

  • I'm not convinced. I can understand the structural convenience of it, but that doesn't explain:

    a) Why people would then want to watch TV programmes about said killers
    b) Why people are so fascinated by them in real-life (eg Jack The Ripper, The Yorkshire Ripper)

    In particular, serial killers generally aren't just killers: they're also serial rapists and torturers. There are serial killers who aren't (eg 'angels of mercy') but they very rarely feature in shows like Criminal Minds, et al, which prefer the “likes to chase after vulnerable young women and then sadistically rapes and tortures then murders them” kind of serial killer.

    I can theorise charitable reasons why people would want to watch a show about such a person (eg the enjoyment of seeing justice enacted against terrible evil, the enjoyment of being frightened) and there are shows that have plenty of artistic merit despite being about serial killers (eg Hannibal, early Dexter), but I can't quite work out why Criminal Minds has run for 11 seasons, quite why there have been so many serial killer shows and why anyone gives a monkey's about Jack The Ripper.

    But that's just me.

  • JustStark

    I was going to reply, 'Well, they wouldn't make the programmes if nobody wants to watch them', but, well, nine series of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.

    But if you have a bunch of kinds of programmes that people will watch, then you'll probably get more of the kind that are easier to write, won't you?

  • JustStark

    There are serial killers who aren't (eg 'angels of mercy') but they very
    rarely feature in shows like Criminal Minds, et al, which prefer the
    “likes to chase after vulnerable young women and then sadistically rapes
    and tortures then murders them” kind of serial killer.

    Well like I said, one of the things serial killers gets you is an easy way to up the blood, and Shipmans just aren't going to give you the same kind of gruesome as Wests. If you want to get all Gavin and Stacey about it.

    I suppose my point was that there are lots of programmes about serial killers because (a) there's a demand and (b) they are easy to write, and so there's going to be more of them than there are of programmes for which there is a demand but they are hard to write (eg, spy thrillers, say, for which there is a market just like there is for serial killer stories but which demand complex plotting).

    If you're asking why the market exists, well, I'm not sure that's an answerable question given that I still haven't worked out why there's a market for Downton Abbey, or cheese, yet there apparently is.

  • Cheese is a mystery

  • Mark Carroll

    Fascination — hmm, maybe also a car-crash element!