Outlaw Country – Pilot

by deerinthexenonarclights

It doesn’t take the whole ninety minutes of this feature length pilot to know that Outlaw Country – a title that seems shallow unless you understand that it is also the name of a genre – is a show designed to fit the FX Drama model, it only takes the one opening scene. The brutal, backwoods robbery alone tells you that it would have made a perfect partner for Justified – which would coincidentally have re-paired Tim Olyphant with his Deadwood deputy John Hawkes – or Anarchy …’would’ have, had they decided to pick it up for series.

Strangely though they didn’t and stranger still they decided to still show us the episode that they had shot; John Landgraf perhaps hoping that it somehow becomes a hit or mourning what could well have made one. Though with the passing of each of the pilot’s minutes their decision started to make more and more sense to me, until all of a sudden it stopped making any at all. Not because it was bad, no, on the contrary, they did so because it was too challenging and too familiar at the same time; different boots treading in the same bloody footprints.

The list of similarities between this and those trademark FX dramas is a rather self-writing one: it’s set within a small town (called Slaughter) deep down in the American South-West, it follows a sensitive young man who is sucked into the bloody family business by his adopted father figure – his own father a fallen victim to the lifestyle – for whom he and his rockabilly, redneck mates rob gangsters and ganja dealers with glee, until of course he gets greedy and decides he wants out for a woman, a girl with an overbearingly strong older, brunette mother who may or may not be his cousin. So yeah, it’s a bit of an amalgamation of parts.

Unlike Justified though this southern-set show respects country music as much as it does the country people. There ain’t no hippety-hop theme song here, instead there are whole plots dedicated to the performing arts: Eli, the lead, laments his troubles over a guitar instead of a journal while the female figures form a Mother-Daughter country duo and when the pair meet it is with music that they communicate. So think Treme out West, or Crazy Heart if it was a sequel to True Grit. It’s a strange but sensible combination of concepts, one expressed pretty eloquently by the lead’s tattoo (which I had to screencap since FX have put no effort into promoting the show):

It’s hard to say what would does or doesn’t work thematically in a show based on pilot alone, but while I questioned the combination initially Outlaw Country had me convinced on its meshing of music and misdemeanors as soon as it started to swirl the two central stories together in what  would have been the second episode. FX stalwart Adam Arkin, who took over direction from Dinner when the project stalled sometime back, does his usual dashing job behind the camera capturing some stunning visual sequences, shocking violence, charismatic performances (Hawkes is such a strong screen presence, how he doesn’t have a show…) and combining them all to a tune sung from the mouth of a character. The musical montages simply work so much better when the song isn’t a separate entity and when John Hawkes joins in on the chorus of a Hank Williams number, well it all comes together and the show had me on-board for six seasons and a movie.

Sadly though the chances of this pilot ever getting a second screening of DVD release are slim to nil at this stage and what’s left doesn’t tell a satisfying story – though it could have with a few new scenes, a tragic tale of how some people aren’t given the option to break bad since they were simply born that way, trapped on their own reckless road to Slaughter – so it’s hard to really recommend that anyone seek this show out. That said though, you should do it now if you’re ever going to and send an email Landgraf’s way to say how much you liked it because if this had gone to series my recommendation would have been a strong one indeed. It’s probably worth the two hours alone to see John Hawkes eat some screen as a Mags Bennett / Al Swearingen style scene stealer of an antagonist; he would have made one hell of a big bad.

Shit. Why do country songs always need to end so sad?