NEW YORK (AP) — “Outsiders,” the bare-knuckles new drama from WGN America, pits a tribe of off-the-grid hill people against “civilized” folk at the foot of the mountain who want to oust them to unearth a rich vein of coal just waiting to be mined once these long-entrenched squatters are evicted.
But it’s not going to be easy. Or pretty.
“We don’t go up THERE, they ain’t supposed to come down HERE,” warns Deputy Wade, reciting the policy of detente that keeps a shaky peace in place. It is Wade who now is ordered to drive them out.
Thomas M. Wright plays this put-upon lawman, with veteran actor David Morse starring as “Big Foster” Farrell, the fearsome heir-apparent to the tribe’s leadership, and, otherwise among the large cast, Ryan Hurst (known to “Sons of Anarchy” fans as motorcycle gangster Opie) portrays “Big Foster’s” formidable but tormented son.
Is the conflict in “Outsiders,” which finds the Farrells locked in internal strife while at the brink of war with the outside world, likely to cause fireworks in this pocket of Appalachia? In Farrell tribal-speak, you might say “Ged-gedyah.” Which translates into “Hell, yeah!” (The series premiered Tuesday at 9 p.m. EST.)
“Outsiders” was created by Peter Mattei, a 58-year-old artist-polymath (“Dilettante, I think, is the word you’re looking for”) whose resume includes playwright, novelist and filmmaker with a 2002 indie picture, “Love in the Time of Money,” that Robert Redford executive-produced and featured Vera Farmiga, Rosario Dawson, Steve Buscemi and Adrian Grenier. His range of cool comrades also includes an executive producer of “Outsiders,” Paul Giamatti, whom he first met when both were attending Yale Drama School.
Mattei (pronounced “mah-TAY”) today divides his time between Austin, Texas, and upstate New York. But he was inspired to create “Outsiders” by memories from his post-collegiate days as a founding member of a theater company that staged its plays in a Tribeca warehouse, and as a resident in the dirt-cheap, but now super-chic, patch of Brooklyn known as Williamsburg.
“In Williamsburg, it felt like we had this ‘mountain’ we could live on for free,” he says, invoking a Farrell-esque perspective. “Then, with gentrification, along came the people with money, and they evicted us.
“I think a lot about money and technology,” continues Mattei, who studied economics at Brown University and worked for a time in the dot-com industry. “After Occupy Wall Street and the financial crisis, I was trying to find some way to write about that, too. It all came together as this group of modern-day people who live in an anti-modern way, without technology, just as they had done for centuries.
“And then there comes a threat” — Big Coal, enabling modern contrivances while befouling nature — “to their way of life. And they will have to defend it.”
Make no mistake, “Outsiders” doesn’t play favorites between the Farrells, who only want to be left alone, and the villagers, who desperately need the economic jolt this coal windfall might provide.
The first episode even includes a declaration of coal’s importance to the nation’s energy needs. And while the Farrells are certainly no pack of sweethearts (it has to be more than coincidence that this in-bred family’s surname is so similar to “feral”), one initial plan from their camp for how to meet their looming threat sounds reasonable enough.
“I wanted both worlds, in the hills and down below, to have lots of shades of gray,” says Mattei. “This series is like all the things I’ve done — a little bit like conceptual art, like a thought experiment: ‘What if…..?’”
The “what-if” propelling “Outsiders” was met with interest from several networks, Mattei says. But none more so than WGN America, which has found success with a pair of ambitious dramas, “Manhattan” and “Salem,” and in March will launch the Civil War-era “Underground.” It handed him a 13-episode straight-to-series deal.
“WGN wants to take risks and make a mark,” he says, “and they know they aren’t going to win in a crowded marketplace by putting bland stuff out there.”
“Outsiders” is not bland.
“I wanted to keep a kind of indie-film spirit going, a craft-beer mentality,” says Mattei, who, besides his writing duties, served as on-site showrunner, stewarding a company of more than 100 in a rugged backwoods shoot outside Pittsburgh. “My role was kind of preserving a DIY aesthetic. My slogan was, ‘Perfect is the enemy of great.’”
Thus did Mattei establish his own backwoods society, one with specially tailored rules and rituals, and even jargon for his characters mashed up from Welsh and Gaelic. An out-of-the-ordinary drama? Ged-gedyah!