Tuesday, October 3, 2006 by Rob Buckley
It’s possible for a show to be doing all the right things, yet be let down by one element so badly, that watching it becomes akin to having a kidney removed by over-enthusiastic gibbons. So it was with The Outsiders, ITV1’s attempt to marry the fun spy escapism of ’60s shows like The Man from UNCLE with the glamour and plots of modern US series such as 24. Top-secret spy agencies with entrances in antiquarian bookshops; bungie-jump interrogations; the Vatican’s secret ninja police: it could have been fun.
But there’s always something vaguely embarrassing about British shows that try to emulate American genres. It’s like watching your dad trying on leather trousers. The Outsiders was no different in that regard, even if did at least succeed in matching its US cousins in a few areas. With a cast that included Colin Salmon and Brian Cox, the acting was more than serviceable and almost star-studded; there was an impressive fight scene that easily outdid most American shows; and the shadowy organisation – Minus 12 – to which ex-EastEnder Nigel Harman’s former top-secret operative-come-cook reluctantly returns had the same pleasing amorality as SD6 and company.
Indeed, with its use of continental night clubs as handy boltholes for evading the baddies, The Outsiders clearly had ambitions of being a UK version of the globetrotting Alias, right down to Minus 12’s attempt to recover a Renaissance artist’s Fountain of Youth, a MacGuffin that pretty much mirrored Alias‘ five-season long quest for Rambaldi’s secrets. While its budget was microscopic in comparison, The Outsiders was still able to convey a certain exoticism, even if attempts to depict sunny Mediterranean hideaways tended to leave the bitter taste of a summer holiday in Dorking in their wake instead.
At first glance then, the problem might have appeared to have been the plot, which was entirely derivative, full of holes the size of double-decker buses and clichés that were old and cobwebbed decades ago. A man and a woman handcuffed together and on the run? Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. A spy in hiding from the organisation he used to work for? The entire Bourne series of films and just about any US action show from the ’80s. Yet, it was certainly no worse than many successful and infinitely better programmes and could easily have classed itself as an “homage” if it had so wanted.
No, the glaring, motorway pile-up of a flaw that transformed The Outsiders from a potentially sublime piece of throwaway nonsense that anyone could enjoy into something that could be used in Guantanamo as an interrogation technique was the dialogue. If dialogue were an animal, then The Outsiders‘ would be smallpox.
An early exchange about the difficulties of jogging backwards (Anna Madeley: “It must be hard”; Harman: “What?”; Madeley: “Jogging.” Harman: “It gets boring going forward all the time.” No doubt he sometimes mixes it up by also scuttling sideways like a crab in Nikes) was followed by a ludicrous “seduction” scene which involved a watered down but lengthy and bewildering discussion of the mating habits of lobsters.
The show’s characters then carried on running their nails down the dialogue blackboard with posturing and threats that would have got them laughed out the average playground, intermixed with heavy-handed plot exposition that might as well have been stuck on placards for all their subtlety.
The situation could, potentially, have been rescued if any of the cast had twigged the dire situation they were in and injected some knowing humour into their performances to make the show a modern version of The Avengers. Instead, it was left to Brian Cox as the sinister head of Minus 12 to unilaterally camp things up. It was a turn that suggested not only a good pair of running shoes, ready for the moment his salary hit his bank account, but the possibility that this was Bluetooth Brian Cox, the real model phoning in his performance from Pasadena.
The result instead? An awe-inspiring disaster in every way: Ed Wood’s “Cut! That was perfect,” echoed loudly and clearly from every scene. Coming just days after a Cracker special, it was good to be reminded that that was the exception that proved the rule of ITV1’s rock-bottom quality threshold.
Still, with viewing figures that just beat the BBC1’s competing The Amazing Mrs Pritchard and with ITV1 desperate for even the slightest thing that looks like a ratings success, there is, unfortunately, the looming horror of a potential follow-up programme to this obvious pilot. In fact, the normally reliable writer Caleb Ranson has already cooked up plots for an eight-part series and would love to do 22, according to an interview in The Stage. The critical mauling the programme garnered might be enough to stop this happening, but if there’s any doubt, there’s no better time to write to your MP than now.