Outer Range Season 1 Review: Brolin Buffaloed By Baffling Black Hole

Balancing a mystery is a delicate operation. In the best of cases ("Twin Peaks" is a good example), a TV series will be able to keep introducing new clues over an extended period while keeping the central conundrum tantalizingly obfuscated. If said clues are intriguing enough, the audience will continue to tune in on a weekly basis, eager to solve the puzzle. This was certainly the model for the hit series "Lost," which managed to keep its ultimate secrets hidden for 121 episodes. "Lost," although having ended 12 years ago, seems to have wrought a trend we're still riding out in modern TV: The frustrating long-form mystery with no solution. Included in this trend are "The Event," "Flash Forward," "Manifest," "Alcatraz" (wherein the lead character died during the season-one cliffhanger ... right before the show got canceled), and many others besides. 

Mystery Box programs are perhaps the most aggravating of all TV shows. Long-form, slow-burn television offers nothing but episode after episode of ... no resolution. Mystery Box writers are eternally drifting through events that accumulate, don't add up, and never pay off ... unless you're patient enough to see the show through multiple episodes or even multiple seasons. Character arcs are only understood after nine years and motivations are never revealed. By the time we reach the end, we forgot the beginning. It's one thing to be lost in a mystery, but it's quite another thing to feel entirely jerked around by writers who clearly haven't thought out their own mythologies.

The frustrating Mystery Box treatment is applied to the Western genre with "Outer Range," a new series on Amazon that debuts on April 15, and will release two episodes per week thereafter for the next three weeks. "Outer Range" — not to be confused with the Colorado brewing company — stars Josh Brolin, Lili Taylor, Will Patton, Imogen Poots, and a quartet of young men who are largely indistinguishable; more on them in a moment. The central mysterious mystery of "Outer Range" is a mysterious 12-foot-wide bottomless pit that has mysteriously appeared near the edge of a mysterious Wyoming ranch. Mysterious people have mysterious motivations. And there's a lot of rodeo footage. And a lot of bison. Mysterious, mysterious bison.

The premise

Brolin plays Royal Abbott, a tough-but-emotionally-wounded Wyoming rancher with a pair of ne'er-do-well sons (Tom Pelphrey and Lewis Pullman) who, in the first episode, get into a bar fight and accidentally kill someone. Lili Taylor plays his wife, and she is given frustratingly little to do. While exploring his property one day, Royal finds the above-mentioned space hole on the Western edge of his property. It appears to be bottomless, and is filled with floating, magical-looking particles. With a bottomless pit at his disposal, Royal disposes of his sons' victim in the hole. The victim will reappear several episodes later, but will have only aged a few hours even though he had been missing eight days. Hmm. Brolin will also try jumping into the pit and will re-emerge shirtless and with wounds on his back and no memories of what happened. Hmm. 

A mysterious stranger has also appeared on the Abbott ranch. Poots plays Autumn, a woman who was just looking for a place to camp as she drifts through Wyoming, but who definitely knows something about the nature of the hole. She wears a necklace that contains an undulating black substance that squirms more violently when a hole-related plot point is about to occur. When Autumn shakes Royal's hand, a nearby mountain vanishes for a few moments. Hmm. When Autumn pushed Brolin into the bottomless pit, he reappears two years later with the entire town gathered around the hole eager to shoot him. This two-year flash-forward is either forgotten by the next episode, or there was a supernatural explanation I missed. 

Back on the ground, Patton plays Wayne Tillerson, a neighboring rancher and the town bigwig, who is eager to buy out the Abbott ranch for himself. Tillerson is "Outer Range's" one (1) character who is permitted to play any notes other than laconic or, well, mysterious. He talks about his collection of erotic art and seems to have a sexual fetish for the taxidermied bison head on his wall. Tillerson has two sons (Shaun Sipos and Noah Reid) who — to my old eyes — appeared to be mirror images of Royal Abbot's two sons. Far too much of "Outer Range" will be devoted to the four younger men and I admit to mixing them up several times. Patton is one of those rare actors who has invented his own character type, and it's a delight to have at least one reliable character actor freely hamming it up in an otherwise staid and logy series.

Black gold, Texas tea

Let us not forget the local sheriff Joy (Tamara Podemski) who is on the trail of the show's opening act of violence, and who becomes embroiled in supernatural mysteries herself. Joy dreams of living in peace with her girlfriend, whose reelection campaign is taking up a lot of her cognitive space. Joy will be the one to notice an uptick in the local bison population (which has, incidentally, also been occurring in real life over the last few years), and who will eventually have a vision — or will perhaps travel through time — to witness a healthy Wyoming landscape prior to European colonization. 

To investigate the mysteries himself, Royal will take possession of Autumn's magical necklace (he wins it in a high-stakes poker game) and will extract the black substance inside, absorbing it into his hands. Other characters will also find that they can mine the black substance out of the ground, which serves as a catalyst for the bison population. 

Much of the show's later episodes are devoted to protecting the Abbott sons from the law while the Tillerson sons become more ambitious. The final episode will spend entirely too much time at a local rodeo wherein characters compete to no end other than to win it. Perhaps my focus was pulled, but certainly the mystery of a local space hole, vanishing mountains, and spectral bison should be the focus of the show. Surely there should be a Mulder and a Scully on the case investigating the nature of the thing. If the hole is supernatural, then perhaps a clergyman or other holy figure could explain it. After only eight episodes, one's patience will wear incredibly thin with "Outer Range's" lack of solid explanations. What was the meaning of the triangular symbol on the rock? Why is Autumn drawn to the symbol? And why does she feel compelled to carve the symbol into her own skin, and into the skins of others? These are not tantalizing questions.

Too much, and not enough

"Outer Range" is a show where too much and too little are happening simultaneously. It's a supernatural program that spends far too much time on ranches, in kitchens, and at rodeos, attempting to get audiences involved in the lives of its characters after they're already snorting space dust. Its supernatural elements are handled clumsily, as they don't seem to follow any sort of rules, however alien. 

Brolin, Taylor, Poots, and Patton are giving what they can, but when characters have to remain off-balance and/or secretive in every scene, it's hard to get a handle on who they are supposed to be. These types of characters are, of course, stock types from the Mystery Box genre, but that doesn't make them intriguing. In order to keep the audience bewildered, useful story beats are kept down to a steady drip, and characters speak only in enigmas. At what point does a TV series transform from an appealingly confounding mystery into a protracted exercise in withholding information? "Outer Range" is certainly teetering into the latter. I am not moved to continue watching, but I will be sure to read a synopsis once the show comes to an end. Assuming it hasn't already hit a wall. 

Some mystery boxes should never be opened. This mystery box needs to be pried open for the sake of its own life. 

"Outer Range" premieres on Prime Video starting April 15, 2022.