The Outlaws, episode 1 review: a promising start, but not as funny as it thinks it is

Darren Boyd, Rhianne Barreto, Christopher Walken, Clare Perkins, Gamba Cole and Stephen Merchant - BBC
Darren Boyd, Rhianne Barreto, Christopher Walken, Clare Perkins, Gamba Cole and Stephen Merchant - BBC

The Outlaws is a comedy about people doing community service in Bristol, guest starring Christopher Walken. Yes, really. The man who won an Oscar for The Deer Hunter is on BBC One playing a dodgy grandpa with an electronic tag, who helps to renovate a community centre with Stephen Merchant. I mean, if it was Robert De Niro, an actor who says yes to literally every comedy script that comes his way, it would make sense. But Christopher Walken?

He makes no attempt at a Bristol accent (which is probably a blessing, given his attempt at an Irish one in Wild Mountain Thyme) and we don’t yet know why he’s a New Yorker but his daughter is full West Country. But it’s a fun bit of casting.

Anyway, what of the rest of the show? Well, it’s a promising idea, which Merchant, who wrote it, says was inspired by his mother’s job supervising offenders in the community. A disparate bunch of low-level lawbreakers end up forming a little unit together: besides Walken’s Frank there’s shy straight-A student Rani, self-important businessman John, vacuous celebrity Gabby, earth mother Myrna, geeky Greg, and Christian, whose gang links look set to draw his new friends into the criminal underworld.

I’d happily watch a show that just concerned itself with Rani (Rhianne Barreto) and John (Darren Boyd) and jettison the rest. Rani in particular has an interesting family life, shoplifting as a way of rebelling against her parents pressuring her to get into Oxford. But the others ­– Walken aside – are dull, with poor Myrna only present so she can act as a woke counterpoint to John’s diatribes about transgender vegans.

For every good line, there’s one to make you wince because it feels out of place, as when Walken tells his supervisor: “We’re working, boss, harder than a prostitute with two mattresses.” And a child being coaxed to refer to her grandfather as “a lying, thieving, selfish old bastard” just isn’t as funny as the writers think it is. But this show’s heart is in the right place, so here’s hoping it comes together.