Horror is one of the trickier genres to get right and Cinemax did it with Outcast. No small feat on the TV.
Traditionally a story's frights come from reliance on a single element; at horror's most hackneyed you have the jump scare – the shock shot, the big boo! And then you have subtler works that create dread through a mounting sense of wrongness. Kubrick's The Shining is as fine as example as you can get.
Outcast is special in that it mixes in intelligent jump scares with the greater horror evoked by creating a pervasive sense of wrongness. The show also deals heavily with Shining's other source of fear (which was more prominent in the original Stephen King novel): the fear of your own loved ones. The fear of them changing and turning to harm you.
The show (adapted from a comic of the same name by Robert Kirkman) is set in the small town of Rome, USA. Literal forces of darkness have wormed their way into the town's heart, and to the local preacher, Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister), these are no less than a sign that the Devil is at work. Anderson has for years quietly been administering exorcisms to afflicted townsfolk with the tacit approval of the local police chief, played by the excellent Reg E. Cathey. During the course of a particularly difficult exorcism Anderson encounters the town's recently-returned black sheep: Kyle Barnes.
Barnes (Patrick Fugit) is presented as a quietly decent man who has been a victim of the darkness all his life. It follows and possesses those around him, and for mysterious reasons only his touch seems to be able to free them – though never without a price. And so it is he freed his own mother while still a child, when the darkness possessed her to torture him. Something similar appears to have happened with his wife and daughter – leading him to be charged with assault and legally restrained from seeing them again. Kyle Barnes is haunted by his actions and cannot justify them to himself.
The Reverend enlists him in his exorcisms, seeing his power as a godly gift. The series tracks their battle to save Rome from the darkness – and as its nature is steadily revealed Anderson's faith is tested, as is his relationship with Kyle. After all, he gave up his entire life to fight the Devil's work; why should Kyle Barnes be gifted with the power to fight it and not himself?
If indeed the darkness is the Devil's work, and not something else entirely, which is a thought Anderson has understandable difficulty with.
Complex characters in difficult relationships and a steadily building plot that slowly answers intriguing questions – these are the reasons to start on Outcast. The excellent cinematography and acting reward you for every minute spent watching.
There are few shows that are quietly doing so much just right.
Zoheb Mashiur is a prematurely balding man with bad facial hair and so does his best to avoid people. Ruin his efforts by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org