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‘Outsiders’ Review: WGN Drama Delivers More Than Just Facial Hair

Scripted series treads familiar anti-hero ground, but does so skillfully

As the golden age of “too much television,” continues (if you believe in such things), the latest player charging hard out of the gate is relative newcomer WGN, which attempts to build on its gritty dramatic slate with this week’s addition of “Outsiders.”

On the surface, the Appalachian-set story is one part “Macbeth,” one part “Sons of Anarchy” and one part “Mad Max,” rounded out by a cast of notable actors including Ryan Hurst, David Morse and Joe Anderson. Dig a little deeper, and this is a unique tale of a pelt-wearing mountain folk who refuse to desert their posts when a big bad corporate mining company attempts to blow them out of house and home. Meanwhile, viewers can see the effects their ongoing battle has on the small town below, from job loss and illegal moonshine to corruption in the Sheriff’s office and a potential star-crossed romance.

At the show’s core, it’s easy to quickly recognize that these “good guys” are not good, per se. They accept modern day conveniences when it suits their needs, and don’t seem to care who they hurt in order to maintain their way of living. One scene in the pilot, in which they raid a grocery store for sugar in order to make more moonshine showcases exactly that, as do the inner brawls that they use in order to solve conflict. But even bad men need a moral compass for audiences to accept them as the anti-heroes. Here we’re to learn these Farrells (the clan’s actual last name but a reference to their feral behavior works here as well) prefer crossbows to guns, and abide by a hierarchy of their own when it comes to important group decisions. Perhaps most important to the story at the onset is the Amish-like belief that once you leave to live with the modern day world, you won’t be welcomed back.

It’s that entry point in which we meet Asa (Anderson), a defector Farrell who is attempting to return to the clan by spending his time in a cage repenting. Once the golden child, Asa’s newfound life skills (including reading) become a begrudging necessity to his former family as they ward off the mining bigwigs. Indeed, most of the show’s introductory conflict lies within that specific plot, but the true drama begins to unfold when the clan itself begins to fall apart at the seams.

Thanks to Morse’s power-hunger Big Foster character, who is the next in line to run the clan, the story quickly shifts to one that’s just as much about keeping an old-school mentality together as it is about warding off external threats. That Macbeth storyline comes hard into play by the end of the pilot, setting up a winding story throughout the remaining 12 episodes.

Sweeping and complex with a large cast of characters to delve into, “The Outsiders” isn’t necessarily new or gripping television, but it’s structured drama that delivers results thanks to the likes of Peter Tolan (“Rescue Me”) and Paul Giamatti at the helm as executive producers. If you can get past the thick accents there’s a wealth of multifaceted characters to root for and enough story to keep you entertained during the inaugural run. Beyond those 13 episodes, however, it quickly appears that your long-term investment will depend on just how many of those characters are left standing.

“Outsiders” premieres tonight at 9/8c on WGN America.