It’s a TV show based on a comic book by Robert Kirkman that’s jaw-droppingly violent, nightmarishly scary and set in the South. But it’s not The Walking Dead.
Quite the opposite, actually. Kirkman’s latest series, Outcast, makes you think that he once took a bet: Could the TWD creator dream up a story completely on the opposite end of the horror spectrum and still have a hit?
Based on the initial reactions to Outcast, first screened at SXSW in Austin and debuting June 3 on Cinemax (you can also watch the complete first episode on YouTube or Facebook), Kirkman has succeeded, big time.
“This one is very different,“ Kirkman told Playboy. “When the first episode of The Walking Dead aired, we had already done 75 issues of the comic. This is a fresh new thing that’s happening almost concurrently. There are issues of the comic series that are adapted into the first season [of the show] while I was writing them.”
Based on Kirkman’s comic of the same name that originally debuted mid-2014, Outcast is the story of Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit), a shell of a man who’s returned to the fictitious town of Rome in rural West Virginia, where he lives in his dilapidated childhood home. His sister Megan (Wrenn Schmidt) provides assistance in the form of groceries and supplies, although he is reluctant to see her and lives mostly as a shut-in. Through flashbacks, we piece together the reasons for his self-imposed exile: terrifying violence and abuse by his mother, while seemingly possessed, and by others throughout his life.
Something is rotten in the town of Rome. When eight-year-old Joshua becomes the latest in a string of possessions, Kyle teams up with the town’s grizzled evangelical Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister) to exorcise the demon in an epic display of Southern Baptist preaching, supernatural levitation and all-out hand-to-hand combat. The spirits are drawn to Kyle, a fact that has more or less ruined his life, but Kyle also somehow possesses the ability to drive them out.
“By the end of the first episode, Kyle starts to figure out there’s a unique way he can interact with this phenomenon and he doesn’t know why that is,” says Fugit. “A lot of the first season is him and the Reverend figuring out why that is and what the rules are.”
There’s a squeamish level of violence and sheer brutality to Outcast that will delight TWD fans: Its opening scene features Joshua smashing his head against a wall to kill a cockroach, which he then eats. But far beyond swapping zombies for demons, Kirkman’s latest series veers sharply away from what you might expect.
TWD is about survival in the perpetual now. The characters live on the run, whether at the farm, the prison, or bouncing between towns and "safe zones” in the sweltering Georgia heat. Food and supplies are scarce. They’re hunted by roving gangs and zombies alike. But even as the threats get larger—ruthless Shane still pales in comparison to the Governor and neither can hold a candle to Negan—they’re still manageable. The dangers can be understood, if not exactly addressed.
Outcast is about what can’t be understood. The threat is unseen, lurking under the surface (or the skin), and it can’t be dispatched with a bullet or a crossbow or a barbed-wire baseball bat. Here, characters exist in the present but live in the past, haunted by terrors and ordeals from days gone by. And with each episode of Outcast comes an overwhelming feeling of dread; we get the sense that we’re marching towards something terrible and unequivocal.
“In The Walking Dead, you walk outside of your house into this post-apocalyptic environment where the threat is right in your face, the zombies are on the street and the sanctuary is behind those closed doors and behind those drawn curtains and hidden in those houses,” says showrunner Chris Black. “In Outcast, it’s flipped: You walk down the street and everything appears normal and safe. Where the threat and the horror lies is inside those dark houses and behind those drawn curtains. It’s a more intimate type of horror.”
On TWD, we fear for our favorite characters because we’ve followed them for half a decade and because they’re essentially wandering alone, lost in the proverbial forest. With Outcast, we realize that we’re not alone in the woods.