In "Outsiders," premiering Tuesday on WGN America, civilization meets "civilization" as a coal company seeks to dislodge a large tribe of Appalachian mountain people from land they've occupied for hundreds of years. It's a mixed bag of a series that can seem smart or silly from scene to scene and is less convincing in its epic poses than in its most ordinary moments.
Created by Peter Mattei ("Love in the Time of Money"), it offers a fairly whimsical take on mountain living, in the person of the Farrells, whose lusty, rough-and-tumble world looks less like anything you might have seen in a Walker Evans photograph or a Barbara Kopple documentary and more like the cast of "Braveheart" taking over a production of "Hair."
It is true that remoteness and lack of mobility conspired to preserve colonial folkways and Elizabethan speech patterns in the hollows and highlands of Appalachia, but "Outsiders" takes its cues from fiction, from "Game of Thrones." "Sons of Anarchy" and whatever in its drama of power and succession might be labeled Shakespearean. Fans of "Justified" will recognize the setting and the dynamic and find "Outsiders" in some respects a less realistic version of that already romantic show.
For all their back-to-1600, off-the-grid lifestyle, they have a marked affection for all-terrain vehicles; and there are electric guitars in one scene, a solstice celebration with fire breathing, slow-motion dancing and coyly represented toplessness. While some of the Farrells illustrate the old Bob Dylan line that to live outside the law you must be honest, others are fine with running down to the Whatever-Mart and taking stuff; some employ the head butt as a rhetorical device.
Still, all told and compared with the industrial hammer poised to come down on them — notwithstanding the promise of jobs, pretty much everyone associated with the coal interests is a creep — they are easily the more sympathetic, more handsomely portrayed party.
And yet something is rotten in their state of statelessness. David Morse plays Big Foster Farrell, who, like an English prince long denied the crown, is eager for his queenly mother (Phyllis Somerville as Lady Ray) to get out of the way so he can run the joint. It's a desire most immediately stymied by her unwillingness to do so, and more obscurely by the return of his cousin Asa Farrell (Joe Anderson) — they're all cousins up there — who left the mountain a decade earlier to live in the world of cellphones and fast food. Soul-sick, he has come home — fulfilling a prophecy, to Lady Ray's sign-sensitive mind.
More conventionally, his arrival creates a triangle whose other points are his old love G'winveer (Gillian Alexy) and her new one, Big Foster's son Lil' Foster (Ryan Hurst), a more or less decent sort a little too dependent upon his father's approval. As the best-looking people in the show, Asa and G'winveer are also its magnetic center; their fated intersection is the point against which other characters' goodness or actions will be measured.
The show leans on what might be called a dramatic inconvenience — entrusting the Farrells' removal to the understaffed local constabulary on the grounds it's an election year and the governor doesn't want the state involved. (Some will note a resemblance between the Farrells and the Bundy brothers' ongoing occupation of Oregon parkland, but it is one that quickly fades.)
The weight of that task falls on Sheriff Wade Houghton (Thomas M. Wright, from Jane Campion's "Top of the Lake," another series "Outsiders" resembles in part), a pained widower who is trying his best to direct attention away from the mountain, because he remembers what happened the last time this was tried, 25 years before.
Wright's performance is one of the show's greater pleasures. (As his sister, a one-woman campaign against the mining, Rebecca Harris also does lovely work.) And next to the broad-chested drama up on the mountain, I much prefer the stumbling, star-crossed attraction between the hapless Hasil (Kyle Gallner) and townie checkout girl Sally-Ann (Christina Jackson); the space between them feels actual, their future authentically fraught.
Where: WGN America
When: 6, 7, 8 and 9 p.m. Tuesday