For some TV viewers, the phrase “Josh Brolin in a sci-fi western” will be enough to lure them into “Outer Range,” Brian Watkins’ new drama built around that exact premise. For others who may need a bit more context and/or incentive, “Outer Range” will provide — up to a point.
Premiering with two episodes on April 15 on (Amazon) Prime Video, the series does indeed center on an especially broody Brolin as Royal Abbott, the gruff patriarch of a family ranch on a plot of Wyoming land with a gaping secret. More specifically, the western patch of the Abbotts’ ranch is home to a wide, black hole, the origins of which are unknown but which has a pulsing power clear to anyone who stumbles upon it. In the pilot, directed with a sense of creeping unease by Alonso Ruizpalaicos, the hole’s lingering presence looms large over most everything that happens outside of it. (Its pitch blackness also appears to take over many of the show’s nighttime scenes, which tend to be shot in such muddy darkness that there might be no way to see what’s onscreen unless you’re screening “Outer Range” with the aid of heavy blackout curtains.)
Royal, whose own origins remain a mystery to everyone from his wife Cecilia (Lili Taylor) to himself, is particularly drawn to the mysterious spot, which he resentfully deems “a void.” In one particularly powerful scene that calls upon all the fire, brimstone, and pure disdain Brolin can muster, Royal hijacks the dinner prayers to condemn it, and whichever god might have brought it to his doorstep. “I’m asking you to fill that void,” Royal spits, as his confused wife and sons, Perry (Tom Pelphrey) and Rhett (Lewis Pullman), look on. “I’m asking you to come down here and explain yourself, because this world of yours isn’t quite adding up and I hate you for it. I really do, and I don’t even think I fucking believe in you, but I fucking hate you. Amen.”
It’s in moments like these that “Outer Range” works, and not because they’re circling some inexplicable tear in the ground. As “Yellowstone” has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt, a straight-up Western with well-defined family dynamics can make for a solid hit on its own, and on a pure character-building basis, “Outer Range” follows suit. It makes quick and effective work of establishing Royal’s commitment to his family, Cecilia’s fiercely conflicted faith, Rhett’s latent ambitions, and Perry’s desperation to make sense of his wife’s sudden disappearance. And as Joy, an indigenous deputy trying to untangle everything while running for the top job of sheriff, Tamara Podemski proves a necessary calmer counterpoint to all the men running so hot around her. None of these plots need a supernatural twist to keep them compelling, try though “Outer Range” might.
At its best, then, the series only uses the void to imbue its more grounded themes — grief, loneliness, faith, longing — with a palpable eeriness (not in small part thanks to Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ off-kilter score). Occasionally — especially when spending time over the Abbotts’ fence with their gaudier rivals, the Tillersons — it even dips into a surreal kind of comedy that shakes up the show’s otherwise grim rhythms. “Outer Range” is always a bit of a different show at the Tillerson ranch, where owner Wayne (Will Patton) and his own sons Luke (Shaun Sipos) and Billy (Noah Reid of “Schitt’s Creek,” complete with randomly sung covers of classic songs) grapple with the strangeness leaking into their own lives by embracing it.
Where “Outer Range” falters, then, is when it threatens to get lost in the mythology of the void, a problem personified in a single character who camps out on the Abbott ranch and immediately wreaks havoc. As you could probably guess just by her self-consciously quirky name, “Autumn Rivers” (Imogen Poots) is one of those headstrong and alluring women characters seemingly sent to haunt men, or else push them into doing her own bidding. She’s wild and strange — or in a term these cowboys might better understand, untamable. She’s also, in a term this TV critic is sick of using but continues to need, something of a Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl who’s meant to be subversive, but instead comes off as thoroughly cliché.
While Poots does her best to make Autumn as mesmerizing as the scripts insist she is, most every scene revolving around her ends up dragging the show down. “Outer Range” could’ve used another more compelling female character, but not like this. If the show is set to keep falling down the void — as its final stretch of episodes certainly suggests it is — it would do better to make this crucial figure less of a frustrating bore.