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Christopher Walken is the poster attraction for Stephen Merchant’s new crime caper, The Outlaws, about a group of misfits who meet on a community service programme. It’s a BBC/Amazon co-production, which maybe explains why the 78-year-old has been tempted out of his velvet-lined coffin in Connecticut to muck in with a herd of British character actors.
Those staring eyes and halting Scots-German-Queens accent do not come cheap. He plays Frank, a fraudster released from a long spell in prison to be welcomed home by his daughter, Margaret (Dolly Wells), and his grandchildren. She is ambivalent about his return, although not for long. Who can stay angry at Christopher Walken?
After being fitted with an ankle tag, Frank is sent off to pay his debt to society, where he meets the rest of the gang. There are seven characters who must pick litter all day in the garden of a rundown estate, watched over by their officer Diana (Jessica Gunning). Community service is a promising structure, because it forces the characters together during the daytimes but lets them out to advance the plot, or their relationships, in the evenings. Despite Walken’s wattage, the breakout star is Rhianne Barreto as Rani, a schoolgirl whose arrest for shoplifting has jeopardised her place at Oxford. It’s a sympathetic performance with more depth than you might expect given her surroundings.
Halfway through the first episode, Rani, talking to the flirtatious gang member Christian (Gamba Cole) helpfully identifies the rest of the crew. As well as Walken’s “shifty old timer” there is a “right-wing blowhard” (Darren Boyd as dodgy businessman John); a “left-wing militant” (Clare Perkins as Myrna); a “celebutante” (Eleanor Tomlinson as Lady Gabby, a posho influencer); and “whatever the hell he is”. (Merchant as a recently divorced solicitor, Gregg. Yes, he opens with a gag about his height.) As for herself, she is a “studious Asian good girl”, while Christian is the “bad boy”. He is trying to extricate himself from his gang involvement, while preventing his sister, who like Rani is a promising student, from being similarly embroiled. Stay tuned to find out how this sequence of events draws the misfits together in unexpected ways. The knowing acknowledgement that the characters are all archetypes is not the same thing as developing them beyond that, and it remains to be seen whether they will be taken in more interesting directions.
Merchant, who co-wrote the series with Elgin James, has said he sees The Outlaws as a kind of western with west country accents. The first episode is bookended with action sequences, but they are pedestrian in both senses. In general the aesthetic is classic Merchant, that sub-Edgar Wright suburban banality where everyone converses mostly in dad jokes and everything looks a bit naff. There are one or two laughs, mostly from Merchant, but the overall effect is very BBC comedy, and not entirely in a good way. This schtick can work, but it needs a lot of charm to compensate for the complete absence of glamour. From this first hour, it’s not clear whether The Outlaws has it. The studios must be convinced as they commissioned a second series, but this gang of rebels seems to stick pretty closely to the TV rules.