WGN America’s new original series “Outsiders” (premieres January 26, 9pm) follows a tight-knit family community that’s lived outside of society in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky for hundreds of years, largely by their own set of rules. But trouble ensues when “a perfect storm” of events occurs, according to executive producer Peter Tolan. We sat down with Tolan and creator/executive producer Peter Mattei to chat about this highly intricate, invented world following a panel of cast and crew at this January’s Television Critics’ Association press tour in Los Angeles. Here’s part one of the interview; check back for part two on Tuesday, January 26, ahead of the premiere.
Tell me about the backstory of the mountain clan.
Mattei: They came over from Scotland, Ireland, Whales, about 250 years ago… and just didn’t want to work as laborers on farms, didn’t want to get conscripted into the army in the Revolutionary War and they sort of fled and went West and ended up living on top of a mountain so that they could be left alone and they could live their own way. There were originally three families, so they all still retain those family names. There’s the Farrells, the Shays and the McGintuks. The first season we spend all of our time in the Farrell compound with the Farrell family, but there’s other stuff on that mountain that you haven’t seen.
Mr. Tolan, how did you get involved in this project?
Tolan: I just read the script. Sony gave the script to me and I hadn’t read anything that good in years and I thought it was really compelling, to the point that I was actually seeing the show come alive in my mind. This beautiful green world, and all these people sort of struggling underneath that, and I thought, it’s not my usual thing, but I really want to do that, and help that along.
You’ve done more comedy in the past. “Rescue Me,” for instance. Is this a new direction towards drama?
Tolan: Rescue Me was sort of half a drama, and so I feel like I can do both things. And the stuff that I’m generating now other than Outsiders—doing a half hour that is a very funny thing with a very serious thing at the center of it, and I’m also doing a pilot at Showtime that, because it’s contemporary, early 1990s, is very funny but very raw—and ultimately a drama.
The name of the series signifies that everyone is an outsider, even if it’s not in the most obvious sense. Most clearly, the character that leaves the Farrell clan for the outside world and then attempts to rejoin. The sheriff does not seem to fit in with “normal” folks, either. No one seems to be “belong.” Could you talk about that idea?
Mattei: I think on the bigger scale, people on the mountain are outsiders to the people below, and the people below are the outsiders to the people on the mountain. But within that, like you said, you’ve got the guy who comes back who’s definitely seen as an outsider and has to prove his worth again to gain re-admittance. You’ve also got the character of Hasil, who is strangely dissatisfied, and has always been, in our backstory, a bit of an outsider within the clan. He goes down [the mountain] and reconnects with Sally Ann, who, as a black woman in that community, is a bit of an outsider herself. So it works on all sorts of different levels, on both sides.
Tolan: A big theme of the show is, where do we belong? Where should we live, and how should we live and who’s our clan?
Some of the cultures you researched to develop this fictional world include Native Americans and gypsies. What are some specific things that you borrowed from those influences?
Mattei: One of the things that struck me was that a lot of these kinds of indigenous communities don’t really have a currency. They don’t have money. They live by sort of giving each other what they need, when they need it. It’s called a gift economy. In other words, take what we think of as a nuclear family and expand it to hundreds of people. That’s kind of how they live. Some of the other things were, we really sort of defined a unique sexuality for the family. There is free love in a lot of ways, but there’s also marriage—it’s not very common, but it’s incredibly serious when it happens. There are lots of different ways that people all over the world deal with sex and partnership and child rearing… so we took some of those ideas from things and put them together.
Any inspiration from other TV shows or other movies?
Tolan: I hope not! It’s funny, I had a meeting with the chairman of The Tribune, who I know from earlier, from FX. And I said, “I’m going to help Peter with this thing, and what would you want to be successful?” And he said to me, “I just want to get the ‘Sons of Anarchy’ audience.” And so, it’s not like we were slavish about it—just keeping it in mind. That’s one of the reasons we sort of looked for things to do with the ATVs. That’s why the jousting thing exists. We tried to find ways to integrate that a little bit more into their culture, so there’s a little more testosterone.
How does morality factor into the depiction of the three clans that live on the mountain?
Tolan: In creating the world, we wanted to make sure that they were a noble people and that they lived by certain rules that they followed carefully. We’re talking about a world that’s in danger of being eradicated, so we wanted to make sure it was a world worth saving… It’s not that they’re savages on a hill, or drunks—there’s an actual working structure—that’s worked for over 200 years.
Right. As the series begins, the mountain culture is in jeopardy of falling apart, of losing something, and their home, due to a pending eviction for the benefit of coal mining. Do you think the factors at play are mainly the outside world, or is it that communities such as this can’t exist forever—and it’s simply time?
Tolan: I think it’s a perfect storm. That this incident happens—this threat from the outside world—at the same time that’s there’s a transition of power within the family. And you have this combination of this transition of power, an outsider from the clan coming back, who some people believe was meant to be the leader, and then you’ve also got a crisis situation. This guy says here’s what you should do, and this guy says here’s what you should do—and there’s an automatic split. And now you’ve got conflict in the family, just in terms of how to deal with this outside threat.
Check back for part two of this interview on premiere day, Tuesday, January 26.