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27 October 2021

Stephen Merchant’s new series The Outlaws is uneven and unfunny

The “jokes” are so laboured, you half expect someone off stage to whack an imaginary cymbal – a signal that the audience should now laugh.

By Rachel Cooke

In his new comedy drama thing, Stephen Merchant, best known as the co-creator of The Office, plays a divorcee called Greg. On Pancake Day, Greg’s wife sent him out for a Jif lemon, and promptly did a runner. History, so far, does not relate what happened to the pancakes when he got home – was the batter already made? Did he eat them anyway? – but perhaps such information is unnecessary: that little plastic fruit, lobbed into the dialogue like a feeble grenade, has made its point. Behind the smiles and the crummy jokes, Greg, we understand, is lonely and sad and desperate.

He’s also a criminal. Merchant’s series is called The Outlaws, but in case you hadn’t guessed, the title is (ho ho) ironic. The desperadoes in question are all doing community service in Bristol, where they’re restoring what looks like a derelict Portakabin. (Can Portakabins be derelict? Well, this one is.)

And what a crazily disparate bunch they are! Rani (Rhianne Barreto) is a swotty A-level student hoping to go to Oxford. John (Darren Boyd) is a struggling businessman with vaguely Brexit-y tendencies. Christian (Gamba Cole) is a guy from a gang-ridden estate. Myrna (Clare Perkins) is an all-purpose lefty who spends her evenings painting protest banners. Gabby (Eleanor Tomlinson) is an aristocratic Instagram influencer. And Frank (Christopher Walken) is… Oh my God, what is Frank?

First, ITV gave us Rob Lowe as the chief constable of the East Lincolnshire Police Force (Wild Bill, cancelled after one series). Now, the BBC offers us Christopher Walken as an ageing con newly released from an Avon and Somerset prison who is living temporarily with his uber-Bristolian daughter, Margaret (Dolly Wells). What next? Is Harrison Ford going to join Emmerdale?

Walken, who looks like he recently lost a fight with an outsize can of Sam McKnight’s Easy Up-Do, appears utterly baffled throughout, as well he might – though my guess is that his befuddlement has relatively little to do with Margaret’s accent, nor even with the fact that, in the first episode, his big moment comes when he nicks a heat gun for her, the better that she can strip paint from an old door (we’re a long way from The Deer Hunter now, Chris). Probably, he’s feeling just like the rest of us, which is to say that he’s wondering desperately where all the gags have gone (“Didn’t this guy used to work with Ricky Gervais?”).

[see also: Impeachment: American Crime Story is a camp portrayal of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal]

There’s an awful lot wrong with The Outlaws. The tone is madly uneven (ugh, the very words “comedy drama”… is any genre more difficult to pull off?), and though the plot is overloaded, each episode still seems too long at an hour.

It knows full well that its characters are clichés: one of them actually points this out. Our walking, talking stereotypes are, I think, going to be thoroughly and predictably demolished over the course of the series, to the point where we feel sorry even for shouty Brexit man. But none of this knowingness can expunge – and it may even underline – the sense that it might have been written by some slightly pious committee (in fact, Merchant has an American co-writer, Elgin James).

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The very worst thing about the show, though, is that it isn’t even remotely funny. The “jokes” are so laboured, you half expect someone off stage to whack an imaginary cymbal – a signal that the audience should now laugh. I sniggered only once, when Diane, the group’s officious probation officer, announced that, should they find a deceased animal weighing more than ten kilos on site, they shouldn’t touch it. No, not a hilarious line. But Diane is played by Jessica Gunning, last seen behind the bar in Simon Blackwell’s Back on Channel 4, and she’s one of those actors who can make almost anything a tiny bit funny, even a script like this. It’s in the roll of her eyes, her pugnacious gait, the way she purses her lips.

I hope The Outlaws does good things for her career, but I also pray that this bland, boring mess will lead the BBC finally to understand that sometimes so-called diversity is really just another form of homogeneity; that what viewers want (what they long for, in fact) is singularity and daring – and also that (newsflash!) one Hollywood star does not a smash hit make.

The Outlaws
BBC One, aired 25 October, 9pm; now on catch-up

[see also: How Succession’s Roman Roy became the most compelling – and grotesque – character on TV]

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This article appears in the 27 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Our Fragile Future