We are often the cause of our own problems. Sad but true. BBC’s dramedy The Outlaws is predicated on this idea, as all 6 protagonists find themselves serving 100+ hours of community service turning a dilapidated building into Bristol’s newest community center. They continue making life difficult for themselves for the next 6 hours, at times making even Bode Locke appear rational. But they do so in some very entertaining ways, and by the end, it’s impossible not to root for them all.
To be fair, one of the group isn’t responsible for his current situation. Christian (Gamba Cole, Hanna, His House) is a 20ish Black man struggling to make ends meet while caring for his teen sister. He’s joined in his hours by 5 other “types,” as good girl\serial shoplifter Rani (Rhianne Barreto, also in Hanna) points out on their first day. There’s right-wing blowhard John (Darren Boyd, Killing Eve, Bridget Jones’s Baby), who’s there for racially aggravated assault. Left-wing community activist Myrna (Clare Perkins, EastEnders, The Wheel of Time), whose last protest went a little too far. Lady Gabriella Penrose-Howe (Eleanor Tomlinson, The Nevers, Jack the Giant Slayer), a temperamental socialite who snorts more coke than Madison Cawthorn at an orgy. Lawyer Greg Dillard (Stephen Merchant, JoJo Rabbit, Logan, a thousand other things) only wanted a blowjob. And Frank (Christopher Walken, The Prophecy, Severance, everything else) is a small-time American hood on parole, living with his distrustful daughter and her family after his latest stint in prison. They’re all under the watchful eye of supervisor Diane (Jessica Gunning, Back, Fortitude), who desperately wants to become a real cop. When Christian is forced by local dealer Malaki (Charles Babalola, Black Mirror, the upcoming Borderlands movie) into pulling a job, he ends up with a duffel bag full of money and a world of problems. Alliances are made, shift, and get broken as various interests vie for the cash.
The Outlaws is truly an ensemble piece. Rani and Christian’s plots tie the group together, but each character is given time to shine. We learn the stories behind the pat answers provided for their criminal motives; even Malaki is more than the neighborhood thug. Empathy for John and Frank is particularly hard to find at first, as the former parrots Brexiter and MAGA talking points and the latter lies with ease to his family. But neither is a caricature and as we find out the truth behind their family dynamics and situations, a reluctant affection is born. Even Gabby is more than the social media maven she seems at first glance. That’s not to say they aren’t all colossal screw-ups. I found myself yelling at the television screen more than once as character after character made the kind of poor life decisions that lead to people getting shot. And while the characters end up on the same team, how they got there doesn’t entirely make sense. It might be Christopher Walken’s deadpan delivery, but it’s difficult to see when he shifts from selfish bastard to suddenly caring about someone who isn’t even his blood. His emotional manipulation of his family is blatant, and difficult to see as anything other than calculating. Even so, Frank is a charming old codger throughout the season, though only a fool would trust him with a dollar.
The writing is solid. It acknowledges the social and racial realities of growing up in Western culture as an immigrant or person of color but doesn’t stop there. Even John gets a taste of the unfair criminal justice system, even if it takes quite a while for him to grasp how much worse it is for people like Christian. Myrna, his opposite in every way, is just as guilty of pigeonholing people. Her demands of social purity from her sister and brother-in-law are ironic, considering she survives on their paychecks. Even the various Bristol community activists are too tame for her tastes. Gabby and Greg fall somewhere left-of-center and are more focused on their personal angst than anything political. Greg’s not a stretch for Stephen Merchant — he’s pretty much the same bland drink of water he usually plays, though his ability to acknowledge his own foibles puts him a step ahead of the rest. Gabby, our poor little rich girl, is damaged goods and knows it. She would like to break out of her self-destructive cycle but lacks the support structure necessary to do it. In her loneliness, she comes to understand Greg better than expected, and the pair’s surprising bond adds heart to the proceedings.
Meanwhile, Rani and Christian are thoroughly charming as decent kids stretched to their limits. Rani’s teenage rebelliousness isn’t smart, but it’s possible to understand why she acted out in the manner she did, and her admittedly over-protective parents are likewise relatable, given their own histories. Her ability to lie with a straight face will feel very familiar to any former teen forced to fib any time they wanted to have some fun. Christian, a goodhearted young man whose mother has utterly failed her children, would do anything to protect sister Esme. He’s trapped between a rock and a hard place at every turn, and in one of the series’ best moments, the final act gives his friends an honest look at what he’s dealt with.
The Outlaws is absolutely worth watching. It’s more drama, less comedy than I hoped for but it does find that sweet spot, particularly once the group begins to pull together. The series ends on a satisfying note but there’s still plenty of material to work with, and series 2 premieres later this year in the UK. Presumably, it’ll find its way to Prime Video in 2023.