There’s a giant empty space at the centre of Amazon’s splashy new sci-fi series Outer Range, literally at first and then figuratively by the end. In the great expanse of Wyoming, in between two rival ranches, lies a confounding hole in the ground, meaning unknown. It confuses and compels those who come across it, including us for a while, until by the end of eight frustrating and haphazardly paced episodes, exhaustion sets in. Despite unusually grand visuals and a hard-at-work cast insisting otherwise, there’s really nothing at the bottom.
Powering us through any drip-feed mystery box show, from Lost to most recently Severance, is an intense, often haunting desire to find out what’s hidden at its centre, a desire so strong that it must outweigh growing impatience. There’s considerable intrigue at the outset here, an opening episode that starts off as a Yellowstone-style western before lurching into a cross between an Ozark-adjacent crime drama and a Stranger Things-esque sci-fi fantasy. At the very least, it’s an unexpected brew.
Josh Brolin, riding something of a genre high after Deadpool 2and Dune and snapping half the world away in the Marvel universe, plays Royal, a grizzled rancher (is there any other type?) who comes across a perfectly formed and perfectly eerie hole in his land. Where it goes and what it means are to be determined but its discovery coincides with both the arrival of a mysterious visitor, played by Imogen Poots, and news of legal action to reclaim the land in which it lies, driven by his eccentric neighbour, played by a cranked-up-to-11 Will Patton. Detailing the what-the-fucks and how-the-hells that follow would be both unfair, drifting far into spoiler territory, and genuinely difficult, given how maddeningly opaque so much of the show is.
While Outer Range might bear the glossy aesthetic of upper-tier prestige television – it’s produced by Brad Pitt’s Oscar-winning Plan B production company and, rarely for a streaming show, looks more like a movie than a series – its increasing collection of barely explained oddities positions it closer to a niche genre show – SyFy Channel with a budget if you will. The oddities pile up thick and fast, both in the show’s scrappy plotting (which in some episodes feels less like plotting and more like a weird thing followed by a weird thing followed by another weird thing) and in how the story is told and performed, with one character repeatedly breaking into song to sing pop and soft rock classics, and other actors often resorting to long, overacted screams at the sky.
Just to further confuse its tone and us as an audience, it’s created and mostly written by a playwright, Juilliard alum Brian Watkins, which means that quite often, if not by the end too often, characters will pause to deliver stagey monologues. If all this sounds distractingly discordant then that barely scratches the surface, and soon into the series, all that initial raised-eyebrow intrigue, which allows for an unmooring yet compelling sense of “what the hell am I watching?”, melts into a pool of annoyance and apathy.
Brolin’s dependable shoulders carry the weight of the show efficiently enough, even if none of this is really a stretch for him, but Poots, tasked with a far knottier character, never quite bewitches the way she seems intended to and the electricity their sparring should spark fizzles out fast. It’s also disappointing that two fine female actors are cruelly underserved on the outskirts: Lili Taylor as Brolin’s wife suffering an underpowered crisis of faith and the fantastic Deirdre O’Connell, who recently gave an extraordinary performance on Broadway in Dana H and who is only allowed to briefly vamp it up as a vengeful matriarch before getting sidelined.
As leftfield as much of the show might be, it’s still very much trying to be a character-rooted family drama but when so much of it feels like an escalation of moments rather than a story building toward something, it’s hard to find anything to truly grasp on to.
Taken in isolation, some of the eeriness is often effective and it really is a genuine pleasure to see a show that deviates from the crushing flatness of so much streaming content. Even without the heavy lifting done by the hard-to-screw-up locations, it’s made with an eye on artistry that more small-screen directors could afford to adopt.
But the eye-catching visuals only serve to remind us of the lack of magnetism elsewhere, the show trying to say something about fate, faith and family but falling short on profundity on all counts. As is now too commonly the case with the exasperating expansion of the world of television to far, far beyond breaking point, there’s probably, nay definitely, a more effective two-hour movie buried here, drowned in padding. At a bloated eight-episode run, this one just doesn’t have the range.