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.