'Outer Range' takes the family drama of 'Yellowstone' but adds a sci-fi twist.
Is it Yellowstone by way of Twin Peaks? Is it an X-File that Mulder and Scully investigate at Dallas' South Fork Ranch? Outer Range, the new Amazon Prime Video Western family drama with a supernatural — or maybe it's sci-fi? — twist defies pithy, or even relatively straightforward, description.
"I think Tom Pelphrey said it really beautifully once," series creator and executive producer Brian Watkins tells Metacritic, musing on how to encapsulate his hard-to-sum-up first foray into streaming TV. "He said that the show is as if Cormac McCarthy, Simone Weil, and Sam Shepard had a child and Raymond Carver is the babysitter. And I said, 'You just kind of nailed that one, man.'"
What is clear, at least, is that both contemporary Wyoming ranch patriarch Royal Abbott (played by Josh Brolin, who not only takes on his first regular television role in nearly two decades, but also seres as executive producer on the show) and his homestead are staring down a string of looming existential crises that threaten to upend his family. (His family includes Lily Taylor as soft-spoken but strong-willed matriarch Cecilia; Pelphrey and Lewis Pullman as sons Perry and Rhett, vying for their father's attention and approval (and not necessarily in that order); and Olive Abercrombie as the clan's youngest and most innocent, 10-year-old Amy.)
The strange events that engulf them are heralded by two unexpected arrivals: a mysterious, gaping, maybe-quantum hole on the outskirts of the ranch that threatens to consume anything that plummets into its pitch-black depths; and the hipster vagabond Autumn (Imogen Poots), whose airy demeanor cloaks hints of foreboding menace.
And while McCarthy and Shepard have long been among Watkins' most potent influences, those name-drops just scratch the surface of the disparate sources Watkins drew from in order to capture the right tone in his genre-bending series.
"I was raised on Steven Spielberg: he was like another father to me, in the way that his expansive idea of imagination and wonder plays into our everyday lives and relationships," he says. "But also Western artists, like [novelist] Marilynne Robinson, like [multimedia artist] Bruce Nauman, who really sees Western landscapes and disrupts them with dashes of neon. And to me, that's really what this show is: it's like a beautiful classic Western landscape that is slashed through with neon."
The Western aspect, Watkins comes by naturally. "It came from a very personal place," he explains. "I grew up out west in Colorado, and the West for me has always been a place where exteriors really inform interiors, where you can step up to the edge of a tree line and feel like you're staring into another world. It's filled with equal parts wonder and strangeness. And from that came this story about a Wyoming rancher that stumbles upon a metaphysical void on his property, and he catalyzes this catastrophic chain of events — and in doing so, unveils the interior voids within him and within his family."
"It came from a place also of just really wanting to tell a story about real people grappling with the unknown," he adds. "The show really tries to exemplify how time is something where past, present and future can be experienced all at once, and the weight of that and how time is really this great antagonist to something like family. And so, Josh and I talked about all these big ideas and specific backstories."
Brolin, too, has a built-in inclination for the Great American West, both geographically and by genre, old and new: his film résumé includes more than his share for a contemporary actor, most notably two modern classics from the Coen Brothers, No Country for Old Men and True Grit.
"I have an affinity for it because my mother comes from Texas," Brolin tells Metacritc. "I grew up with horses, I grew up with wild animals. My mom ran a wildlife way station, with cages that we had to clean when we were eight years old, with wolfs and all that, who had been illegally taken out of the wild — my mom would have those people jailed. So, I was brought up very irresponsibly, but in a very interesting way that lends to this now."
Brolin was at the top of Watkins' get list for the role of Royal, and when the two met in New York, the actor very quickly bought into the mysterioso, surrealistic twist on the genre he loved.
"When you take a romantic Western genre hero that can do no wrong, I like turning that on its head," Brolin says. "You throw this supernatural, metaphysical element into it and what you get is this breakdown structure — this breakdown foundation — in what's cosmetically presented, and then you get some really interesting behavioral consequences out of it. And that's what I'm interested in right now."
Brolin says that even the aspects of Outer Range that he didn't immediately feel in synch with helped fuel that sense of unease and disorientation that is part and parcel of Royal's experience, added an abetted by the rigors of a location production, the stress of a global pandemic and the sleep-depriving demands of being a father to two children under 3 years old, and suddenly Brolin's preconceived notions and planned-out approach to the character was feeling increasingly uncertain — all to the better for his performance, he concedes.
Watkins and the writers faced their own challenges, debating on how opaque the show's many mysteries should be, and the timing of their big reveals, even as more mysteries are layered in.
"That's the trick of any great mystery — how much to hold back and how much to lean in," he says. "Sometimes that was trial and error, and sometimes what we really knew was always returned to the emotional heartbeat of the show. The mystery doesn't matter unless it means something emotionally to one of our characters. It won't mean anything unless we actually feel something about it."
Watkins tried to empower the members of his creative team to bring all of their best ideas to the table at every possible turn, uniting them in their efforts and forging the same sense of familial unity that would inform the core of the show.
"We needed to try to figure out how to create an idea of family," Watkins says. "I have a theater background — I'm a playwright at heart — and so, bringing some of those tools of ensemble-building, be it through rehearsal before we started shooting or through different sources that inspired the show or that inspired us, it was a big pool of people contributing to that conversation and shaping what we lead with. And what ended up happening was this really tight family of artists."
"Hopefully, iron sharpens iron, right?" he says of the benefits of creative fission from strong-minded talents. "It comes through in these amazing performances of our actors, who just did the most incredible job. For me, a big highlight of the show is seeing what this ensemble does. These are performances that go to the absolute edges of who these characters are, and it's produced something really electric."
Outer Range is