I’m not going to lie, when I first heard that The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman had another TV series on the way, I prepared myself for apathy. The AMC show that made the graphic novelist a household name synonymous with splatter-core horror and zombies is a constant source of disappointment for me. But the more I learned about Outcast — which premieres tonight on HBO Canada — the more I started to forget my apprehensions and let the devil in.
Outcast is a serialized exorcism drama about a man who has been harangued by demon-possessed loved ones his entire life, finally returning to his home town, and teaming up with the local reverend to expel the evil that plagues Rome, West Virginia. Sounds like a perfect recipe for scary TV. And it is. Outcast is premium mythology-based horror, driven by characters and spiced up with just enough pulp to get away with any tropes it has to employ.
Here are the five things we at Dork Shelf love most about Outcast:
5. The Shocking Violence
As I alluded to above, Outcast is as violent as The Walking Dead (which featured a child getting shot in the face during its most recent season) but because this new series deals with living people possessed by a maleficent force rather than shambling corpses, watching its carnal scenes hurts all that much more. As Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit) helps Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister) banish the evil entities lodging inside townsfolk, things turn bloody and brutal. It’s not for the weak stomached, as children turn to gory self-mutilation, and nightmarish sexual violence against women is all but shown. But in the end Outcast delivers what a lot of shows would pull back from.
Rather than being exploitative, the ultra-violence aids Outcast in curating its dark-as-True-Detective-but-actually-with-demons tone. The stakes are high for every character on the show, possessed or not, and with violence this uncomfortable, those dire consequences are extended to viewers at home too. In a word, Outcast is visceral. Prepare to cringe.
4. The Surprisingly Deep Mythology
Buddy exorcism drama is nothing new on TV (just ask Matt Ryan’s Constantine or the bros from Supernatural). The mythology of possession and its remedy permeates American pop culture so much that the exorcism horror sub-genre has almost become a vehicle for fantasy rather than fear. No matter the suffering depicted on screen, there’s always a silver lining: possession confirms that there is there is a God, that your life has a particularly special meaning, and that there is an afterlife waiting for you after all the pain. The mythology of exorcism is well trodden and not filled with a ton of unknowns (and as we all know, horror only truly thrives on the unknown).
It’s a pleasant surprise to find that Outcast pushes past the tired tropes of Christian mythology and religious propaganda in interesting ways, breathing new life into the genre. Even though the basic fact of possession is known from the outset, every other assumption is questioned, leading to a tantalizing mythology that I can’t wait to uncover for myself as I watch with bated breath.
3. The Holters
While Kyle Barnes and Reverend Anderson serve as the central pair in Outcast, doing their whole buddy cops with holy water routine, the characters I found most magnetic were Megan and Mark Holter. Played by Wrenn Schmidt and David Denman respectively, the Holters add a more human element to the show. Megan is Kyle’s foster sister, and Mark is her police officer husband. As Megan’s haunting personal arc unfolds, Mark finds himself tested morally, and each becomes more lovable through their painful onscreen trials. They suffer just as much as everyone else in Rome, but the sympathy, love and hope Schmidt and Denman inject into their incredibly bleak domestic scenes makes them essential to the show’s pastiche of human suffering.
2. The Suspenseful Pacing
Within its first four episodes, there are moments when Outcast is heartrendingly intense. The show’s directors manage to juggle its multiple plot threads — sometimes only connected by a common theme (date nights, or sexual frustration) — to such effect that I sweat just thinking about each hour’s climax. Sometimes these moments end in blood or demonic ichor, other times in simmering invisible paranoia, but thanks to a team of creatives that know how to build tension, Outcast is compelling even when the evil on screen is just an idea and not a computer generated hellspawn.
1. The Ethical Questions At Its Core
It’s not just demons that do evil on Outcast. Some of the show’s more upsetting scenes can’t be blamed on anything but the horrible inequities of human nature. Contrasted with the terrible suffering enabled by the oozing black entities infesting Rome, the dark places Outcast’s human characters take the audience raise the question of how much we will forgive based on a villain’s agency. Just because the devil made someone do it, we can look at a murderer who literally tore a woman apart and feel sympathy, while anger, hatred and spite are all we can dredge up for a foster kid who uses his bad life to excuse a childhood penchant for sexual abuse. Outcast adds up all of its ingredients to play an experiment with the limits of our empathy, and that elevates it beyond simple violence and pessimism — it’s a show that makes you contemplate deep ethical questions while delivering legitimate scares and stomach-churning imagery.
Outcast airs Friday nights at 11:00 PM ET/MT on HBO Canada