Outer Range and the Weird Wild West
What is it about the Western that matches so well with genre storytelling?
It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since I binged the first season of Outer Range a few weeks ago. The show follows Royal Abott (Josh Brolin), owner of the ailing Abbott ranch, after his sons (Tom Pelphrey and Lewis Pullman) trigger a catastrophic tragedy in the small town where they live, and a mysterious woman (Imogen Poots) appears out of the blue to stay on their ranch for reasons unknown.
First off, let me just say that I truly love this first season of Outer Range. I’m a huge sucker for small-town genre TV, and Outer Range is one of my favourites in recent memory. Tonally, it’s got a wonderful weirdness to it that never goes too far to break it’s own immersion; there’s a slow, steady build of oddness as the townsfolk and those on the Abbott ranch try to go about their lives without letting it get in the way of things, with some genuinely striking images that have stuck with me since. The central cast of the Abbott family are excellent, while the supporting characters have some serious standouts (Tamara Podemski, Deidre O’Connell, and Noah Reid are my personal favourites). Imogen Poots puts in probably the performance of her career so far as Autumn, swinging between controlled and desperate and handling the tonal shifts the show demands from her confidently every single time. I’ve never been a huge fan of Imogen Poots, but watching her in this, I realized it’s just because I’ve never seen her get a role juicy enough to really celebrate her talent.
But beyond that, what Outer Range does, for me, is to perfect the Weird Wild West genre. What it understands and captures so well is the contradiction between those terms – science-fiction, fantasy, horror, the things that break all the rules of the reality we live in, matched with one of the quintessential visions of classic American life that the Western represents. It lays down the rules and then shatters them, and that bucking of the storytelling rules (if you’ll excuse the rodeo pun) makes for such excellent narrative tension.
Outer Range, with it’s ranch setting, rural small town life, and exploration of First Nations tradition via the character of the sheriff, really makes a point of underlining how important this tradition is to these people and this story, before it goes ahead and pulls it all apart at the seams as the mystical and fantastical elements start to tear away at their reality. The symbol for this tension, a bison out of time, becomes a recurring image throughout the series, the constant encroachment of the impossible on the day-to-day of the Abbott family and the people around them.
In Outer Range, the weird and the traditional come up against each other until something has to give, and the result is a fascinating, completely compelling mesh of new and old, unknown and understood. Packed with great performances and brilliant imagery, I can’t wait for the recently-announced second season, to see how the show handles the pull between the normal and the abnormal in it’s unique, bizarre little world.
Have you watched the first season of Outer Range? What did you think if you have? Let me know in the comments!
(header image via The Guardian)