Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Thanks to American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, Penny Dreadful and dearly departed Hannibal, small-screen horror is at the epicenter of the “peak TV” era. It’s a genre that, once thought untenable on a continuing basis, has instead birthed some of the most narratively gripping, artistically ambitious series of the past 10 years, while simultaneously proving itself to be one of the most versatile groups of programming out there. While AHS has commodified the genre’s garish, gory excesses and ostentations, Hannibal and Penny have plumbed the depths of its psychology. Elsewhere, The Strain, The Walking Dead and its spinoff are busily weaving modern terrors (bioterrorism, systemic governmental breakdown, power vacuums) into crackerjack entertainment.
It’s into this renaissance period of all things grim and ghastly that Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman ushers in Outcast, a Southern Gothic nightmare of a horror show concerned, as so many of these series are, with demons figurative and literal. Marinated, almost frame-by-frame, in an atmosphere more sinister and savory than anything we’ve seen since the first season of True Detective, it’s a thoroughly visceral viewing experience – as made clear from the creeping malevolence of the title sequence alone. Those initial images, all tainted tableaus haunted at the edges by an oozing darkness, at once evoke a very modern kind of urban decay and the presence of something unnatural hidden within, festering amid rusted ruins.
Kirkman, as he’s shown across Walking Dead and its spinoff, is keenly interested in that kind of evil: the type that lurks in shadow-soaked places, taking root just out of sight, digging deep under cover of darkness. In Outcast, he makes such wickedness tangible – demonic entities take the form of black, slinking sludge, reaching out with inky black tendrils and plastering to walls like a fast-moving rot. But the creator is also fascinated by something trickier to depict: the evil you can’t see, the kind concealed behind far-away eyes and faint smiles, busily settling into bone and marrow.
On The Walking Dead, that evil took the form of moral corruption, the hunger for power and control that turned good people bad, rendering them capable of unfathomable cruelty. It was about a situational embrace of malevolence. On Outcast, there’s comparable depravity, but it’s less volitional – the evil here is spiritual, an ancient force that doesn’t seduce people so much as sequester them. When a demon takes a hold of a person, it buries deep. It’s a parasite, affixing itself to its victims’ souls and often lying dormant until the moment it chooses to strike, forcing them to commit brutal, often self-destructive acts without warning.
If The Walking Dead is about trying to stop a cruel world from bleeding across and obscuring moral compasses, Outcast is more concerned with the struggle to prevent the scars of the past from dictating the present (and, of course, destroying the future). It’s about the real human horrors of abuse and neglect, and the painful legacies they leave behind. Its haunted protagonist, Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit, the series’ tormented, twitching core), is a survivor. His mother, who was actually possessed by a demon (Kyle just thinks she was sick), enacted terrible violence against him in his youth, and that trauma has largely colored Kyle’s adult existence.
He lives in a squalid, miserable house, agonized and alone after the dissolution of a marriage within which other, less specified brutality took place. Only Kyle’s sister, Megan (Wrenn Schmidt) retains any kind of sympathy for him; the rest of the town has turned against the guy, both out of shame in remembering the helpless, abused child they failed to help and repulsion in looking upon the ostensible abuser he’s become.