Father’s Day isn’t for a while, but if you’re looking for a new show to recommend to your dad, I’ve got just the thing. Is your father prone to fondly reminiscing on Clint Eastwood Westerns? Drawn to stories centered around a patriarch facing moral quandaries and a question of faith? Loves a family drama rooted in a lack of communication and unhealthy coping mechanisms? Well, this show is all that and a “cosmically mysterious black hole” bag of chips.
“Outer Range” follows gruff, hard-set ranch owner Royal Abbott (Josh Brolin, “No Country for Old Men”) who juggles family problems, beef with a neighboring rival ranch and, oh right, a massive black void in the space-time continuum he just discovered on his property. Kudos to the creators for picking perhaps the only title in existence to so perfectly encapsulate the exchange, “Sci-fi or Western? Yes.”
The genre combination sounds like a bit of a nightmare at first; there’s a clear potential for them to clash, overshadow each other or turn every plot point into a slippery slope from mixed-genre to mixed bag of tropes. But there’s a tenuous balance at work in “Outer Range,” a self-awareness of the precarious ground it’s treading. The Western side of the show easily hits every mark, with scenic landscapes, a tangibly volatile energy in interactions between the Abbotts and their neighboring Tillersons and a performance from Brolin with no shortage of gravitas. The intensity of his outbursts and monologues spaced between long, brooding silences transform Royal from a character you think you have all figured out into one as inscrutable as the black hole itself. Another unexpected gem of a stereotypical Western comes in the form of gay, indigenous Sheriff Joy (Tamara Podemski, “Coroner”), who gives the role a real breath of fresh air in a genre so heavily dominated by its perceived audience of white men.
What sets “Outer Range” apart is where it delves into the alien and the strange, or as Royal so emphatically puts it, “the unknown.” Royal, and the rest of the show, for that matter, maintain a steadfast evasiveness to answering questions about the black void of an elephant in the room but sustain audience interest nonetheless. Much of the show’s affinity for the weird originates from hippie environmentalist poet Autumn (Imogen Poots, “Vivarium”). The most predictable thing about her is her unpredictability; she’s a “wild thing,” an enigmatic female presence that teeters on the edge of “manic pixie nightmare.” Autumn’s eccentricity foils nicely against Royal’s stern, no-funny-business demeanor, and her wide-eyed indiscernible gaze grounds her, like she’d hold her own in a stare-down.
As if the show were somehow concerned with not covering enough ground already, the pilot sets off with an expository voiceover from Royal, telling the story of Chronos, the personification of time in Greek mythology. While I am a sucker for mythological undertones in the supernatural, it’s unclear as to whether “Outer Range” is plotting an intricate reveal of cosmic proportions or using it purely for aesthetics. Beyond the neatly fitting connotation of the black hole being a vessel for time travel, the classical themes of fate and predeterminism suit its characters well enough. For instance, in Royal’s misguided attempts to make sense of things, he is momentarily drawn to his wife Cecilia’s (Lili Taylor, “The Haunting”) devoutness to interpret the black void as an act of God. What I’m wary of is whether “Outer Range” will fully commit to its characters’ religious propensities or abandon them entirely once more of its mysteries are unearthed.
On the whole, “Outer Range” makes a compelling start with an evidently grounded vision. The premiere episode’s cliff-hangers are satisfying enough to make you forget any qualms you might have had about the slower, character-driven pace of the rest of the episode, or the frustrating lack of information revealed about the show’s enigma of a black hole. Its success hinges on whether it will be able to sustain this momentum for the remainder of the season.
All in all, this is a show your dad will most likely see an ad for on cable, and he will probably enjoy it. As someone who’s not a huge fan of Westerns and is wary of the pitfalls of many a sci-fi plot, this was the most entertaining thing I’ve seen about holes since, well, the 2003 classic “Holes.” In fact, “Outer Range” was a lot like watching “Holes” as a kid: I never could quite understand the point of it in the grand scheme of things, but there was a comforting simplicity in knowing that sometimes, a hole is just a hole.
Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.