Review: Why Stephen Merchant's new comedy drama The Outlaws might one of the best things on telly this year

A new comedy drama started this week, and I think The Outlaws (BBC1, Mon, 9pm) might be one of the best things that I’ve seen this year.

By Phil Cunnington
Friday, 29th October 2021, 5:30 pm

Created by Stephen Merchant, this six-parter centres around a disparate group of people who find themselves on the same gang doing community service.

As you might expect, at first glance, they’re stereotypes: the poor little rich girl; the failing businessman; the young lad trying to go straight in straightened times; the nice guy who always comes last.

But over the first two episodes – the second is on iPlayer – more layers are introduced, rounding out the characters, heading in ways you might not expect, giving them motivation for their actions, not just because it’s what their ‘type’ would do; and in no time at all you start to actually care about them.

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The stars of the new BBC comedy drama The Outlaws. From left, Christopher Walken, Rhianne Barreto, Gamba Cole, Stephen Merchant, Eleanor Tomlinson, Clare Perkins, Darren Boyd and Jess Gunning

Of course, The Outlaws also has a Hollywood ace in the hole – Christopher Walken.

Quite how the Oscar-winning star of The Deer Hunter, King of New York and Pulp Fiction ended up cleaning graffiti off walls in Bristol is baffling, but he steals every scene he’s in, his dialogue seemingly made up of gangster-speak, and just to hear him say “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” in that curious, rising Walken inflection is worth the price of admission alone.

Darren Boyd’s businessman, meanwhile, is brilliantly repellent, hiding his failures behind a mask of toxic masculinity: “I’m all for applauding nurses, but how about a round of applause for higher-rate taxpayers?”

Many comedy dramas are neither comic, nor dramatic, but The Outlaws strikes a neat balance between the two, and it’s one chain gang you wouldn’t mind breaking a rule to join. A gem.

Oscar-winner Christopher Walken starred as reformed gangster Frank in the new BBC comedy drama The Outlaws, created by Stephen Merchant

New crime drama The Long Call (ITV, Mon-Thurs, 9pm) was more po-faced than The Outlaws, and although it was beautifully shot, making good use of its Devon locations, it got boring quickly.

Joe Lycett: vs The Oil Giant (Channel 4, Sun, 9pm) was a bit thin on hard-hitting journalism, and fat on scat. In tackling the green-washing of Shell’s public image, it was a worthy target, but unfortunately Joe missed.

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