"Slow burn" isn't quite the right term to describe the tone of Outcast's pilot episode. It would be more accurate to say that the audience's introduction to the TV adaptation of Robert Kirkman and Paul Azaceta's supernatural horror comic is filled with a constant, simmering discomfort that occasionally breaks out in shocking displays - from the opening scene of a young boy (Gabriel Bateman) staring intensely at a cockroach on his bedroom wall before violently slamming his head against it, to a climactic moment near the end of the episode in which protagonist Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit) beats the boy with his bare fists in a desperate attempt to exorcise the demon possessing him.
It's interesting that Outcast should have debuted within a fortnight of AMC's new series Preacher, which is also an adaptation of a mature, gritty comic book with a supernatural edge, both of which are set in small Bible Belt towns. Though Outcast's tone is certainly a lot heavier and more oppressive than Preacher's, the two shows share a slow, swaggering pace and a mise-en-scène of small town life and its accompanying small town characters. In Outcast, Kyle has returned to his home town of Rome, West Virginia, following a split with his wife and child that is merely the latest disaster caused by the dark forces that have seemingly been following Kyle around for his entire life.
All is not well in Rome, however, as young Joshua's possession is only the latest in a series of cases that have been plaguing the town. Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister), a local priest, believes wholeheartedly in the existence of demons and is determined to try and drive them out, though in Joshua's case he soon realizes that he's in over his head. That's where Kyle's return to Rome turns out to be rather serendipitous; as a boy, he was able to drive out his mother's demon (though her mind didn't survive the process), and Anderson believes that he could do the same for others who are afflicted.
"A Darkness Surrounds Him" fortunately doesn't suffer from the usual storytelling blunders that tend to plague pilot episodes - namely, graceless exposition dumps and a rushed plot that tries to establish as much status quo as possible. It even goes fairly easy on the flashbacks to Kyle's traumatic childhood, keeping them brief but creepy and effective. Much of the backstory unfolds organically through Kyle's interactions with other people: the women in the grocery store who gossip about him behind their hands; Kyle's neighbor, the police chief (Reg E. Cathey) who is still wracked with guilt for not doing more to protect Kyle from his mother; and Kyle's sister, Megan (Wrenn Schmidt), who is determined to drag him out of his shell despite the fact that her husband (David Denman) greatly dislikes him and her daughter (Callie Brook McClincy) is afraid of him.
Fugit has a tough task in making Kyle a likable character; one bad experience after another has hardened him into a quietly miserable recluse, complete with unwashed clothes and scruffy facial hair. If there's one thing to be said for Kyle's story however, it's that it's a relief Kirkman didn't go down the clichéd route of killing off his protagonist's wife and daughter for a cheap bit of forced character motivation. The fact that his family is still alive, but he's cut off from them by whatever scar the demons left on his life, provides a much-needed slice of complexity to Kyle's state of being.
Though Outcast's pilot episode is a nice exercise in moody, slowly unwinding supernatural horror, the show's lack of a real hook may end up being its Achilles' heel; stories about demonic possession are not hard to come by, whether in TV or on film, and Outcast's take isn't particularly unique, even if it has its shocking moments. If anything was going to bring audiences back for a second helping it would have been the mystery of why demons are so interested in Kyle, and why he has the power to vanquish them, and the pilot doesn't lean into that mystery hard enough. Amid an abundance of supernatural horror offerings, Outcast may end up struggling to stand out.
Moreover, it's difficult to forecast where the show is planning to move on from here - or, more accurately, it's difficult to imagine Outcast venturing into more interesting territory than it's currently in. Anderson and Kyle playing whack-a-mole with the evil black goo as it takes over one Rome resident after another is going to get old pretty fast, and while mood and atmosphere are enough to carry a pilot, it will take a little more effort to keep audiences coming back week after week.
Outcast returns to Cinemax next Friday @10pm.