Outer Range Review: A mixed bag when Twin Peaks arrives in Yellowstone

With its huge, empty spaces under crackling skies large enough to hold a secret, the American West is a natural setting for high alienation. Roswell and Skinwalker Ranch both occupy the dusty desert southwest. But Amazon’s new series Outer range moves the action further north to Wyoming, for a western sci-fi drama that mixes Yellowstone and The external boundaries with just a touch of Twin Peaks. Now, the shifting tones that such a mix implies are not always related. In fact, they can feel quite incoherent. But given that Outer range is largely of the eerie school of sci-fi, the transformation of classic western tropes – the mysterious drifts, the shootout on the main street – into enigmatic endings, perhaps some deterrent qualities are appropriate.

Outer range comes to Amazon with an impeccable pedigree: This is the second series made under Oscar-winning production company Plan B’s first-glance deal with Amazon – the first is Barry Jenkins’ The underground railway. The more woo-woo aspects of Outer range is presumably influenced by the consulting producer and EP Amy Seimetz, whose 2020 film She’s dying tomorrow is also unfathomable. (Although they were not involved in the production, there are also nuances of a Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead concept in the show.) Series creator and showrunner Brian Watkins, meanwhile, is a famous playwright whose 2015 Wyoming similarly dealt with unspeakable family secrets in the open air.

And before it can dive with its face first into the unfathomable, Outer range has a prestige agricultural drama to take care of. Josh Brolin stars as Royal Abbott, the laconic patriarch of a ranch and rodeo clan. The abbots are the type of family where no one ever says what they really mean, yet they are bound together by blood and intrigue. And in the series opener, Royal is informed that his neighbor, the correspondingly wordy Wayne Tillerson (Will Patton), is taking steps to seize his western pasture by taking advantage of a cartographic error dating all the way back to the 1870s.

Photo: Richard Foreman / Amazon Prime Video

Tillerson's patriarch sits looking at a rock

Photo: Richard Foreman / Amazon Prime Video

The two ranch families in the Outer Range stand by the fence and shop

Photo: Richard Foreman / Amazon Prime Video

Although they are both prominent ranch families in the same small town, the eccentric Tillersons could not be more different from the commonly spoken, pious abbots. And as the series’ primary antagonists, they contribute the bulk of comic surrealism. For example, the youngest Tillerson son, Billy (Noah Reid), is a singing cowboy. And in one of Outer range‘s most Twin-PeakS-like moments, he performs grave karaoke at a funeral when his mother Patricia (Deirdre O’Connell), the type of woman who kisses her adult sons on the lips longer than she should, opens the coffin so she can see who among those gathered mourners look most guilty.

Wyoming ranchers, of course, take their land very seriously. So the quarrel quickly develops into murder, and the entire Abbott family, except for Royal’s little granddaughter Amy (Olive Abercrombie), are involved. Matriarch Cecilia Abbott (Lili Taylor) tries, and fails, to give it to God in one of the series’ least satisfying story lines. Elderly son Perry (Tom Pelphrey) is occupied by his missing wife. Little brother Rhett Abbott (Lewis Pullman) has his rodeo career and a budding romance to consider. And Deputy Sheriff Joy (Tamara Podemski) has a lot to prove, as she wants to become the city’s first native sheriff – and its first queer. Add hippie backpacker, Autumn (Imogen Poots), who is camping in Abbott country, and you have a lot of potential witnesses when Royal drops a corpse down the cosmic time portal on the offended western pasture.

Murder, as it turns out, is the least of the many secrets Royal holds. The portal – or, as the characters call it, simply the “hole” – appears and disappears after its own whimsical whims. When present, it swirls with starlight and planetary nebulae. And if you jump (or get pushed) into it, you will tumble through the space just like that Alice in Wonderland before jumping out somewhere on the Abbott ranch. The problem is that you can not control how long you want to be away. (In Season 1, these time differences range from a few hours to 82 years.) In short, it’s a tangible manifestation of the inexplicable nature of space-time – which, as Autumn puts it, is “chaos all the way down.”

Royal and Autumn stare at each other;  he is in shadow, but she is enlightened

Photo: Richard Foreman / Amazon Prime Video

Outer range is rooted in some great performances, and some good interaction between them. Brolin runs hot and cold like Royal, whose secrets manifest themselves physically as the swollen veins and salivating eruptions that occasionally interrupt his grunting assurances that everything is in order. The bow of autumn, on the other hand, is one of constant escalation. And Poots is magnetic in her evolution from crazy trust-fund hippie to violent messianic cult leader (she has only one follower, but still). As the rivalry between the characters escalates, Brolin and Poots engage in a series of strong confrontations, each looking at each other as if they are not sure if this person is a dangerous rival or a product of their own unreliable imagination. Podemski, meanwhile, takes a more measured approach to figuring out the intricacies of the series’ murder plot. But she is just as harsh, if more subtle in her methods.

Despite the absorbing spectacle, however, a question hangs over the entire first half Outer range: But what about the hole? The series turns into something trippier and more compelling when Seimetz steps behind the camera for episodes five and six. And from there, the avalanche is unstoppable. But it takes a while to get there, and the first half off Outer range leans a little too hard into slow-talking cowboy tastes, with not enough high strangeness to balance it. Some of the story lines are not supernatural at all and suffer as a result: For example, whether Rhett will do well at the rodeo, or whether he will get another date with his old friend who is back in town, are simply not that high stakes or as interesting as the nature of the times. Who cares about arguing with families when there is the hole To consider?

There is a sense that the soundtrack is trying to pull the two sides of the show together. The score, by veteran TV composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, evolves alongside the story from jazz percussion to eerie, sweeping strings straight from a 1950s sci-fi film. Elsewhere, we hear atmospheric country and classic rock songs from artists such as Dolly Parton, Robert Plant & Alison Kraus, Lee Hazlewood and the Rolling Stones. But in the end, many of these songs seem to have been chosen because they are cool, not because they fit the moment lyrically or musically. It reflects Outer range ‘s biggest problem, which is that its more ambitious tonal gambits are not always connected. The direction of each episode is generally quite good, especially when the show takes a turn for the weird in the back half. But when it comes to an overall seasonal arc, Outer range am not sure if it will be curvy and ironic, gritty and dramatic or an awe-inspiring sci-fi mindfuck. A show can, of course, be all three at the same time. But perhaps because this is Watkins’ first foray into television, the balance between these shifting tones is turned off as often as it seems.

When characters start snorting what can only be described as time dirt, Outer range becomes bizarre enough that almost everything seems plausible. Early in the season, a minor character says the city is full of bizarre mysteries, a remark Deputy Sheriff Joy dismisses as a drug-mad hike. She will have a harder time writing it off Outer range return for another season, though. Once you have seen the time buffalo, there is no going back.

The first two sections of Outer range drop on Amazon Prime Video on April 15th. After that, two new episodes will be released every Friday.

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