With its vast, empty spaces under crackling skies big enough to keep a secret, the American West is a natural setting for high strangeness. Roswell and Skinwalker Ranch both occupy the dusty desert Southwest. But Amazon’s new series Outer Range moves the action further north to Wyoming, for a sci-fi Western drama that blends Yellowstone and The Outer Limits with just a dash of Twin Peaks. Now, the shifting tones implied by such a mixture don’t always connect. In fact, they can feel quite disjointed. But given that Outer Range is very much of the uncanny school of sci-fi, re-fashioning classic Western tropes — the mysterious drifter, the shootout on main street — to enigmatic ends, perhaps some off-putting qualities are appropriate.
Outer Range comes to Amazon with an impeccable pedigree: It’s the second series made under Oscar-winning production company Plan B’s first-look deal with Amazon — the first being Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad. The more woo-woo aspects of Outer Range are presumably influenced by consulting producer and EP Amy Seimetz, whose 2020 film She Dies Tomorrow is similarly inscrutable. (Although they weren’t involved with the production, there are shades of a Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead concept in the show as well.) Series creator and showrunner Brian Watkins, meanwhile, is a celebrated playwright, whose 2015 Wyoming similarly dealt with unspeakable family secrets on the open range.
And before it can dive face-first into the inscrutable, Outer Range has a prestige ranching drama to attend to. Josh Brolin stars as Royal Abbott, the laconic patriarch of a ranching and rodeo clan. The Abbotts are the type of family where no one ever says what they really mean, but they’re bound tightly together by blood and intrigue nevertheless. And in the series opener, Royal receives word that his next-door neighbor, the similarly tight-lipped Wayne Tillerson (Will Patton), is making moves to seize his west pasture by taking advantage of a cartographical error dating all the way back to the 1870s.
Although they’re both prominent ranching families in the same small town, the eccentric Tillersons couldn’t be more different from the plain-talking, pious Abbots. And as the series’ primary antagonists, they contribute a majority of the comic surrealism. Youngest Tillerson son Billy (Noah Reid), for example, is a singing cowboy. And in one of Outer Range’s most Twin-Peaks-esque moments, he performs graveside karaoke at a funeral as his mother Patricia (Deirdre O’Connell), the type of woman who kisses her adult sons on the lips longer than she should, throws open the coffin so she can see who among the assembled mourners looks the guiltiest.
Wyoming ranchers, of course, take their land very seriously. So the dispute quickly spirals into murder, and the entire Abbott family, save for Royal’s preteen granddaughter Amy (Olive Abercrombie), is in on it. Matriarch Cecilia Abbott (Lili Taylor) tries, and fails, to give it to God in one of the series’ least satisfying storylines. Older son Perry (Tom Pelphrey) is preoccupied with his missing wife. Younger brother Rhett Abbott (Lewis Pullman) has his rodeo career and a budding romance to consider. And Deputy Sheriff Joy (Tamara Podemski) has a lot to prove, given that she’s angling to become the town’s first Indigenous sheriff — and its first queer one. Add the hippie backpacker, Autumn (Imogen Poots), who’s camping on the Abbott land, and you’ve got a lot of potential witnesses when Royal drops a body down the cosmic time portal on the embattled west pasture.
Murder, as it turns out, is the least of the many secrets Royal is keeping. The portal — or, as the characters call it, simply “the hole” — appears and disappears according to its own capricious whims. When it’s present, it swirls with starlight and planetary mist. And if you jump (or are pushed) into it, you’ll tumble through space like Alice in Wonderland before popping out somewhere on the Abbott ranch. The problem is, you can’t control how long you’ll be gone. (In season 1, these time gaps range from a few hours to 82 years.) In short, it’s a tangible manifestation of the inexplicable nature of space-time — which, as Autumn puts it, is “chaos all the way down.”
Outer Range is anchored by some great performances, and some great interplay between them. Brolin runs hot and cold as Royal, whose secrets manifest physically as the bulging neck veins and spittle-drenched outbursts that occasionally interrupt his grunting assurances that everything is fine. Autumn’s arc, on the other hand, is one of continual escalation. And Poots is magnetic in her evolution from kooky trust-fund hippie to violent messianic cult leader (she only has one follower, but still). As the rivalry between the characters escalates, Brolin and Poots engage in a series of powerful confrontations, each of them eyeing the other like they aren’t sure if this person is a dangerous rival or the product of their own unreliable imagination. Podemski, meanwhile, takes a more measured approach to sussing out the intricacies of the show’s murder plot. But she’s just as fierce, if more subtle in her methods.
Despite the absorbing acting, however, a question hangs over the entire first half of Outer Range: What about the hole, though? The series transforms into something trippier and more compelling when Seimetz steps behind the camera for episodes five and six. And from there, the avalanche is unstoppable. But it takes a while to get there, and the first half of Outer Range leans a little too hard into slow-talkin’ cowboy languorousness, with not enough high strangeness to balance it out. Some of the storylines aren’t supernatural at all, and suffer as a result: For example, whether Rhett is going to do well at the rodeo, or if he’ll get a second date with his old friend who’s back in town, simply isn’t as high stakes or as interesting as the nature of time. Who cares about squabbling families when there’s the hole to consider?
There’s a sense that the soundtrack is trying to pull the two sides of the show together. The score, by veteran TV composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, evolves alongside the story from jazzy percussion into eerie, sweeping strings straight out of a 1950s sci-fi movie. Elsewhere we hear evocative country and classic rock songs from artists like Dolly Parton, Robert Plant & Alison Kraus, Lee Hazlewood, and the Rolling Stones. But ultimately, many of these songs seem to have been chosen because they’re cool, not because they fit the moment lyrically or musically. That reflects Outer Range’s biggest issue, which is that its more ambitious tonal gambits don’t always come together. The direction of each episode is overall quite good, especially when the show takes a turn for the weird in the back half. But when it comes to an overall season arc, Outer Range isn’t sure if it wants to be arch and ironic, gritty and dramatic, or an awe-inspiring sci-fi mindfuck. A show can, of course, be all three at the same time. But, perhaps because this is Watkins’ first foray into TV, the balance between these shifting tones is off as often as it works.
Once characters start snorting what can only be described as time dirt, however, Outer Range becomes bizarre enough that just about anything seems plausible. Early on in the season, one minor character says that the town is full of bizarre mysteries, a remark Deputy Sheriff Joy dismisses as drug-crazed rambling. She’ll have a harder time writing it off should Outer Range return for a second season, however. Once you’ve seen the time buffalo, there’s no going back.
The first two episodes of Outer Range drop on Amazon Prime Video on April 15. Two new episodes drop each Friday after that.