In season two, episode one, of The Outlaws, a Sunday-night comedy (BBC One) about a group of losers doing community service together, there is a scene in which gnarly old rogue Frank is about to let his family down yet again by selfishly skipping the country. A line of dialogue simply requires him to tell a pal that he’s taking a taxi to the airport later, but the reading of the line is extraordinary. “Got a few hours to kill!” says Frank, with a flaming charisma that hints at unimaginable mischief within that period. “Then CABBING! Direct to Heathrow airport!”
That is because Frank is played by Christopher Walken, whose demonic sparkle is one of the many reasons why The Outlaws is much more than a bare synopsis suggests. Co-created and largely written by Stephen Merchant, it continues a trend for widescreen comedy thrillers that started in 2013 with The Wrong Mans, the success of which inspired lesser imitators – Witless on BBC Three, Bounty Hunters on Sky One – to toss bumbling sitcom putzes into peril, making them face off inexpertly against dangerous criminals. Many of those shows were annoyingly wacky and agonisingly contrived; The Outlaws, blessed with the writing nous and Hollywood clout that an A-lister like Merchant brings, is the first in a while to get the right blend of small-time pratfalls and twisting, propulsive, cinematic narrative.
In the days before sitcoms evolved into sitcom thrillers, the characters would have just stood around talking in the show’s central location, a dilapidated Bristol community centre that a gaggle of lonely strangers must renovate as a penance for minor crimes. But, in season one, Christian (Gamba Cole) committed a further, rather more serious crime by stealing a holdall of cash from his drug-dealer employer. Some unlikely events later, the group had not only all become implicated in the theft but had laundered and shared the money before resuming their punishment, apparently in the clear.
Along the way, they were interrogated by police and chased down alleys by men with machetes; they visited party yachts and country mansions in their efforts to hide and then keep the loot. Often, there were big coincidences, as people conveniently arrived in a place or made a decision at just the right moment to keep the story going, but the story kept going pretty well. In any case, the thriller element is only half of what makes The Outlaws an upgraded sitcom. We’re really here for the sweet, gentle drama of watching the characters learn that their marked differences are not a problem, as they all share the same secret: they are alone and lost because they don’t know what to do with their lives.
From Darren Boyd, utilising his gift for suppressed mania as brusque but floundering businessman John, to Eleanor Tomlinson as Gabby, an earl’s daughter whose Instagram fame and champagne lifestyle belie a lack of meaningful relationships with friends or family, we come to cherish these cartoonish figures. In a series that serves as a show of solidarity to the lonely, the bullied and the disenfranchised, they all have love to give but nobody to receive it – until they find companionship as the West Country’s most inexperienced crime syndicate.
Although, at times, he and his co-writers have inelegantly inserted trauma into the characters’ backstories, Merchant’s tolerant compassion for his diverse creations is evident and, of course, he makes them funny. He is particularly good at conjuring bathos by referencing exactly the right celebrity, brand or town, an old Victoria Wood trick which works well when we’re contrasting high-stakes criminality with ordinary Bristolians. And, even before he acquired enough kudos to lure Christopher Walken to British telly, one of Merchant’s strengths as a writer-director was always that his shows could draw on at least one hysterical comic performance, by Stephen Merchant. Here, everything he does as Greg, a physically calamitous divorcee, is hilarious or heartwarming, or both at once, as when he stands up too quickly in a nightclub and gets his head stuck in a chandelier.
In the season two opener, Greg – who once related that his ex-wife said living with him had been “like being trapped in a well” – is told by the others that no, the drug cartel probably won’t force them to dig their own graves in the desert, due to the Avon and Somerset area not having a desert. “Well then,” says Greg, “Minehead beach.” He is right to be worried, since the end of the episode sets up a new threat that suggests the show is going to become British sitcom’s answer to Ozark. (“Ozark at ee”, as local people might say.)
Before then, there aren’t too many thrills in The Outlaws’ comeback episode, which is fine because we’re content just to hang out with the characters for a while. We’re happy to be part of their gang.