PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Outcast: Season 1, Episode 1 - "A Darkness Surrounds Him"

Sean Fennell

Cinemax's new series from Robert Kirkman doubles down on the demonic possessions but does little else.


Airtime: Fridays, 10pm
Cast: Wrenn Schmidt, Patrick Fugit, Philip Glenister
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 1 - "A Darkness Surrounds Him"
Network: Cinemax
Airdate: 2016-06-03

I imagine a day in the Cinemax New York City headquarters -- the ones below or adjacent to their more prestigious sister channel HBO -- where an executive walks in with a short, but successful pitch for a television series to add to their short list of original programming: "Robert Kirkman, demonic possessions".

At this point, few names have the kind of power in a television genre than Robert Kirkman does in supernatural horror. No one saw the wild success that his comics-based series The Walking Dead would become on AMC, but you can be sure that executives everywhere are looking to find the next most successful brainchild of graphic-novel writer. Outcast, whose first episode premiered on June 3 and is available to watch online, is Cinemax's shot at repeating the magic of The Walking Dead. Its pilot episode shows some of the promise, and some of the pitfalls, that the zombie series did in its early years.

One thing that The Walking Dead has always excelled at is the shocking moments. It's one of the reasons why it’s become appointment viewing for those even only mildly interested. If you don’t watch it the night of, or soon after, you risk seeing the details all over social media within hours. Outcast's first episode, "A Darkness Surrounds Him" starts with the kind of gripping shocker moment that Kirkman does so well, with a boy smashing a cockroach with his forehead before attempting to bite off his own finger. It's a decidedly get-foot-in-the-door approach to hooking viewers to a new series, and it's hard to disagree with the tactic. When you open with cockroach smashing and self-mutilation, it's difficult for a viewer not to hang around to see what this is all about.

The issue with Outcast's pilot is the answer, which seems to come quickly and far too neatly. The boy is processed by the devil (or some off-shoot), and has all the symptoms we’ve learned come with such a possession. He talks in a low, gravelly voice of things of which he should have no knowledge, he's physically pained by prayers and holy crosses, and he floats around the room like Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters. The fact that the series isn’t really about this boy at all is irrelevant, and doesn't change the fact that these moments have become clichés and tropes more than horror.

In truth, the series is really about Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit), whose story is just a little more nuanced than that of the demonized child. Kyle, who when we find him is in a state of depravity and apparent depression, has had, let's say, a rough life. Through the now-mandatory pilot episode flashback, we learn that Kyle grew up with his abusive mother who, like the boy with the cockroach, was seemingly possessed by evil spirits; an easier out for someone than just admitting they're a horrible person, I imagine. She beat him, screamed at him, and locked him in the pantry for days on end. It appears that whatever help Kyle has received since that point has done little to erase the memories.

Even an adoption from the nice Holter family could not save Kyle, though his sister, Megan Holter (Wrenn Schmidt), seems to be the only one who is currently looking out for his safety, much to the chagrin of her cop husband. The hook for the series lies is in the fact that Kyle can't, no matter what he does, escape from the evil forces that took his mother. Through ever more flashbacks and even some neat little in-dialogue exposition, we learn that Kyle's wife was also possessed and may have hurt their daughter in the process.

For those keeping count at home, that’s three, count 'em, three characters in the opening episode alone whose soul is, or has at one point been, inhabited by evil. A good rule for whether a The Walking Dead episode is too over the top is to count the zombie fights, and it seems Outcast is set to follow this example by doubling down on the scenes of harried souls fighting the hold of the devil.

That’s not to say that these scenes, in and of themselves, aren't tense and lively and unnerving. Episode director Adam Wingard knows his way around a possession, but going to the well too often, especially in the pilot episode, doesn’t bode well for the series' future. Neither does the ominous environment that pervades each and every scene, not allowing a moment for the characters or the audience to recognize a real world behind all this horror.

Unlike the opening episode of Outcast I don't want to give the impression that all hope is lost. In reality, there are some truly intriguing things about Cinemax's new series, first and foremost being the work from the underrated Patrick Fugit in the lead. Fugit possesses (yep, pun definitely intended) the savvy to imbue some of the more cliché character notes with a sense of realness that is makes his Kyle rise above complete sad-sack status, which at the very least, has me interested in where the first season will go from here.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.