The Outlaws season 1, episode 1 recap – a surprisingly smart crime comedy

October 26, 2021
Jonathon Wilson 0
BBC, Weekly TV
4

Summary

Smart, funny, and surprisingly dramatic, Stephen Merchant’s The Outlaws is a winner.

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4

Summary

Smart, funny, and surprisingly dramatic, Stephen Merchant’s The Outlaws is a winner.

This recap of The Outlaws season 1, episode 1 contains spoilers.


Stephen Merchant is perhaps best known as the less-successful half of the partnership that brought us The Office, Extras, and numerous other collaborative comedy projects from podcasts to audiobooks and radio shows. But his recent work compared with that of long-time creative partner Ricky Gervais suggests he might have been the brains of the operation all along. His Fighting With My Family was a warm and affectionate look at a family of British wrestlers trying to make it overseas. His new show, the six-part crime comedy The Outlaws, which is airing on the BBC in Blighty and on Amazon Prime Video internationally, is a very different prospect but exhibits the same sense of sneaky genius that threads through all of Merchant’s comedy as far back as the XFM days. He’s funny and self-deprecating, but also smart, observant, and empathetic. All of this is to say that The Outlaws is very good indeed. There’s no wonder a second season has already been greenlit.

The Outlaws season 1, episode 1 recap

The premise, cooked up by Merchant and co-writer Elgin James, is simple enough. Seven people from various backgrounds – and for various crimes – are forced to carry out community service in Merchant’s native Bristol (he apparently got the idea for the show from his parents). Everyone’s a broad type, which the closest thing to a POV character explains out loud at one point, but they’re all hiding hidden depths and nuances brought to light by both the clever writing and the performances. It starts out as a culture-clash comedy and morphs, by the end of the premiere, into a legitimately dramatic thriller.

That quasi-protagonist is Rani (Rhianne Barreto), the “studious Asian good girl” who’s secretly a kleptomaniac and takes an immediate shine to Christian (Gamba Cole), the good-hearted “bad boy” who is trying with all his might to keep his younger sister safe from the gang that controls their estate. The cast works well in pairs like this. John (Darren Boyd), a right-wing Bristolian businessman who keeps banging on about the liberal left, is squared off against Myrna (Clare Perkins), a militant Black activist, mostly so they can argue about social politics. That leaves Christopher Walken playing something of a detached loner in Frank, an ex-con living with his estranged and resentful daughter, Eleanor Tomlinson as social media influencer Gabby, and Merchant himself ambling along as Greg, a lanky divorced lawyer who’s a bit of a loser even among this mob.

The Outlaws episode 1 is, predictably, about introducing these characters, giving hints of their personalities and backstories, and then beginning to paint them outside the lines of whatever genre archetype they’re supposed to embody. Christian is especially compelling, but everyone is more human and complex than first appearances suggest, and it means that everyone is difficult to dislike, even if they’re trying their best to make you dislike them. The writing is very funny and sometimes silly, but it’s also just naturalistic enough that you feel like these people are very funny, on their own terms and not on behalf of the script, which is a charming trait. John complaining that he isn’t a Jihadi bride when he’s forced to go through the metal detector another time doesn’t have the mean-spirited sting it might; Greg’s “Bodger that” line, when he’s told to dispose of a dead badger, is just perfectly delivered.

The Outlaws is obviously trying to tiptoe along this line between exaggerated comedy and serious drama, and it’s surprising how well it manages that feat, in dialogue and action. The big moment towards the end of the episode is Rani going out of her way to help Christian steal a holdall from a trap house that might endanger herself and her whole family. Given how most of the premiere plays out, I wasn’t expecting any guns. Yet, when they arrive, it doesn’t feel forced or like too much of a departure from what came before. I realized at that point that I’d already bought in. I cared about what happened to these characters; I was crushed when John’s deal with Chinese businessmen fell through – and then when he lied about it to his wife! – and I was happy to see Frank bond with his daughter, even if he had to steal a heat gun to do it. It was sad to see Gabby rack up a line, all alone, and to see Greg tuck into a lonely ready meal in his flat. I even felt for Diane (Jessica Gunning), a satirization of bureaucratic busybodies who is mocked by her colleagues for believing her job is important and trying to be good at it. It wouldn’t surprise me if she ended up as something of an ally to those whose community service she’s overseeing. They probably need all the help they can get.

You can stream The Outlaws season 1, episode 1 on BBC iPlayer and Amazon Prime.

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