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The Outlaws - Review

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Stephen Merchant is one of the more exciting and well established British creators around, and The Outlaws (formerly titled The Offenders) plunges us into the community payback sentence field, where seven strangers from completely different walks of life are thrown together and forced to pay off their minor crimes by community service, cleaning graffiti off a building and generally repairing disused locations. Merchant’s brand of humour is employed deftly here as the show switches between a comedy and a crime drama, plunging you into Bristol’s makeshift criminal underworld once these lawbreakers discover a bag of cash on their lot that they are assigned.

Deliberately diverse and inclusive; The Outlaws has 6 episodes that is enough to give its entire dramatis personae something to do. Rhianne Baretto’s Rani is due to attend a top university but to the shock of her strict parents, she’s caught shoplifting having never once committed a crime before. Eleanor Tomlinson’s Gabby is a always-online high profile social media artist. Myrna is an old-school activist, played by Clare Perkins, who tore down the statues of slavers in Bristol during the recent protests – but is struggling to fit in with the methods of the younger activists in her party. And then there’s Christopher Walken’s Frank, an ex-con, who constantly disappoints his daughter (Dolly Wells) and his grandson and to their horror – has to move in with them under house arrest. Walken just being there makes this an absolute must watch but he takes a relative back seat to the true diverse make-up of this cast, which never puts any one character to one side – giving everyone involved a story to tell. Rani makes things clear early on saying that everyone’s a type – identifying herself as the “studious Asian good girl”, but The Outlaws quickly peels back these characters layers and we discover that they’re more than who they appear to be. They’re put into forced dynamics with characters who they’d never meet in any other situation – John is a right-leaning businessman who’s struggling to stay afloat, and this show puts them through the wire thrusting them out of their comfort zone in every way possible.

The Outlaws juggles to balance its tones – when money gets involved and gangs come into the plot, it becomes a scramble to work out who the characters are and what they stand for. It’s a character-centric show first, a plot-heavy drama second, so it takes its time to get where it’s going and even at six episodes, some of the episodes themselves feel maybe ten minutes too long between them – but between them they have enough heart and soul that is worn on its sleeve. This film carries with it the same energy as Merchant’s wrestling feature, Fighting With My Family, starring the great Florence Pugh, and it’s magnetic enough that it keeps building and building week after week, escalating the stakes – those who fear a cliffhanger and a long wait won’t get any here as it wraps up well, and without going into spoilers the series ends on one of the best notes of the last few months of television.

There are a few places where The Outlaws tries to be a bit too of-the-moment and it doesn’t always work with its dialogue, but it comes from the right place – it’s a lot of cliches too especially early on, but that’s kind of the point – the show is knowing enough of that and spends much of the subsequent episodes tearing them down and building on these characters so that they’re not the same place as to where they finished as to where they started. And any early problems are presented without too much harm, the initial episode flows over you like a charm – and the second paves way to more depth and character development, an instant improvement that aids its case for the bittersweet feel good ensemble that you need in your life right now. Whilst it is largely predictable the show throws a few sideways turns at you that you weren’t expecting too – enough to keep you on edge as it gives every character room to become actual characters.

Just like with Showtrial, The Outlaws is set in Bristol and makes optimal usage of the location. It never once feels like these characters are on a set, and they are always living their lives the way they want – it feels real and deeply honest. The soundtrack is superb too – a lot of familiar songs set the mood and lend into the Bristol feel of it all.

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