Amazon's new sci-fi Western series Outer Range is a mystery box show, the popular subgenre of drama in which the mystery's questions form the backbone of the show, and, like opening a box that has another smaller box inside it, getting answers to those questions usually leads to more questions. Think of previous mystery box shows like Lost and the many imitators that followed, most of which lived on broadcast television and dragged on for 22 episodes, an episode count that isn't well suited to getting answers quickly. Outer Range, which I also call Cowboy Finds a Hole (which reminds me of Andy Daly's horny cowboy poet Dalton Wilcox), moseys in at a succinct eight episodes in its first season, so you'd think there'd be little beating around the bush and more gettin' straight to it, but after finishing the first season, I still had no idea what was going on. Answers begat more questions, and in some cases, utter dumbfoundedness.
That's a quibble I can live with, though, because 1) we'll hopefully get a better understanding of things in the yet-to-be-ordered Season 2, and 2) more importantly, the journey to that seemingly arbitrary endpoint is spectacular at times, and no one will accuse Outer Range of being like anything else on television, despite the fact that you will spend most of your viewing time acknowledging its clear influences: Twin Peaks, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stranger Things, Yellowstone, Rectify, and hundreds more. For those looking for something different, Outer Range is a thrill, even if it's not always clear-headed.
Outer Range is set in present-day Wyoming, following rancher Royal Abbott (Josh Brolin, doing strong work here), who discovers a perfectly circular, gaping hole about 30 feet wide with no bottom in the far reaches of his pasture. Like most paranormal discoveries, the secret hole eventually spins Royal, his family, and other members of the town out of whack with its possibilities and dangers. One of those others is Autumn (Imogen Poots), a vagabond who asks Royal if she can camp on his land and obviously knows more about the hole than she initially lets on. Royal eventually uses the hole to get his family — wife Cecilia (Lili Taylor), eldest son Perry (Tom Pelphrey), and rodeo-ridin' youngest son Rhett (Lewis Pullman) — out of a sticky situation with their cowboy neighbors, the Tillersons, led by the power-hungry Wayne (a wonderfully unhinged Will Patton) and his two cowboy sons, the business-minded Luke (Shaun Sipos) and the dimmer Billy (Noah Reid). And hot on the hunt for answers about what's going on is Deputy Sheriff Jo Hawk (a revelatory Tamara Podemski), an Indigenous lesbian gunning for sheriff in the next election.
From there, Outer Range mashes up genres like it's making whiskey. The Western backdrop is mostly decorative (and impressively so), but the vast expanses of Wyoming solidify the sense that anything is possible and act as a reminder of the great unknown. The supernatural element forms the mystery, but it's how the characters react to the hole and what it could mean that's more important than what the hole actually does. The meat of the early episodes is an incredibly competent murder mystery (not a whodunnit, but a howaretheygonnagetawaywittit) that could hold up a show on its own. The family drama and the rival ranchers harken to more traditional television that will satisfy Yellowstoners, and help flesh out characters clearly. But it's an indescribable quality to Outer Range that makes it chug along.
"I think [Outer Range] is on an absurdist enough level that we can go in so many different directions," Brolin said at a pre-air event hosted by Deadline. It is, and it does. It's the "spirit of the land" mysticism and intentional trips into the bizarre that really make Outer Range stand out, with choices that individually can feel positively deranged, but as a whole, color the season into something charmingly off kilter. At times, the seams don't hold, especially toward the end of the season when things should be coming more into focus and answers should be flowing, but that's part of the allure of Outer Range. Just watching to see how (and if) the series holds on while it spins wildly out of control is a cerebral workout. Crazy, yes, but boring Outer Range is not.
Take, for instance, a heated, unexpected romance between two characters late in the season that has them furiously lapping at each other's tongues while the camera whizzes around their heads like a mosquito, focusing in on the saliva bridge that forms between their mouths. Or when Wayne talks about bats and moths using "ultrasonic sexual communication" or Billy belts out Kate Bush at a funeral. (Billy does a lot of singing, and his repertoire includes Hall & Oates, Vanessa Williams, church hymns, and more, and every single time, it's amazing.) These scenes don't have to be included, but thank god they are, because they're entertaining as all heck in their knowing campiness. They make you appreciate the risks that are being taken.
But Outer Range isn't just throwing darts at the saloon wall. When it needs to, Outer Range crackles with suspense, and the series' directors, particularly Jennifer Getzinger and Amy Seimetz, take it to white-knuckling heights. When they're not gazing at the majesty of Wyoming or Brolin's squinty glare and jutting jaw, cameras bob and weave through the Abbotts' farmhouse, do full 360s inside a truck during a car chase, or tongue-in-cheekily nod to Westerns of yore to set up a duel in town. And newcomer Brian Watkins, who created and wrote all eight episodes, clearly has something in mind underneath all the madness, and is fantastic at staging cliffhangers that demand the next episode. Add in an excellent eerie score and a soundtrack of deep cuts that hardly contains any country music, and that solidifies that Outer Range is hardly a Western at all, but an entirely new beast of its own kind. That it is so familiar yet so unique is a compliment.
Yet many watch these sci-fi-tinged mysteries to see them solved, and as Outer Range sunsets its first season, there's little solid ground to hold onto during the wait for Season 2. It's by design, but it's likely to frustrate viewers who need things wrapped up and left at a point they can marinate in. An unexpected story-shaking turn does reveal itself by the end, but many of the season's overarching questions remain as black and mysterious as the hole itself, and new ones are introduced just as you think things are settling down. With no promise that more Outer Range is coming, some will find it worrisome. But if you can appreciate what you've taken in and can recognize the potential for something truly great ahead, you'll find Outer Range worth the confusion.
Premieres: Friday, April 15 on Amazon Prime Video (first two episodes, two new episodes weekly)
Who's in it: Josh Brolin, Lili Taylor, Imogen Poots, Tamara Podemski, Will Patton
Who's behind it: Brian Watkins (creator), Brad Pitt (via his Plan B Entertainment)
For fans of: Yellowstone but sci-fi, mysteries but not as many answers, oddities
How many episodes we watched: 8 out of 8