Front Porch Blog

From inside Appalachia, a look at WGN’s “Outsiders”

Exclusive to the Front Porch: Award-winning author Ron Rash, known for his distinctly Appalachian voice as a poet, novelist and essayist, offers this reflection on WGN original series, Outsiders, about a clan of Kentucky natives living deep in the hills, and well outside of society.

Photo by Ulf Andersen.

Photo by Ulf Andersen.

So meet the Farrells (get it, feral), who live atop a mountain in southern Appalachia. It is 2016 elsewhere in America, but the Farrell tribe (who number between twenty and two hundred depending on which episode you watch) is living a lifestyle that is a bit retro, say by about two thousand years. They clothe themselves in animal pelts, walk barefoot, and do their internecine “feuding” with clubs.

There is no need to worry about any instances of micro-aggressions in this show. Five minutes into the premiere, we are assured that these mountain folks are nothing but a bunch of incestuous “retard hillbilly animals,” which the next scene confirms. We meet the Farrells at a clan-wide hoedown where everyone is at least a cousin and hell-bent on keeping it that way, openly fornicating when not swilling moonshine or brawling. No stereotype is overlooked: everyone is illiterate except for one heretic who left for some book-larning; Indoor plumbing? Are you kidding, these folks don’t have electricity except for a generator, whose sole purpose appears to be powering a screeching electric guitar. Otherwise, it’s candles and wood stoves. In the first three episodes, we get hexings, attempted matricide, fingers chopped off for violating tribal law, a Viking-like raid of the local Wal-Mart, and language that makes the bad guys in Deliverance sound like Rhodes Scholars. No one plants anything but marijuana and the only hunting is for “furrinurs’ unlucky enough to get these folks riled up. So where does the food come from? I’m expecting a later episode to reveal why Ferrell and cannibal sound so similar.

Assuming reviewers if not TV executives would find such outrageously grotesque depictions disturbing if not reprehensible, I checked their responses to Outsiders. That the show might even be remotely offensive went unmentioned. If anything, three of the four reviewers found the idea that such people existed in Appalachia plausible. Variety praised the show’s ability to depict “a strong sense of place in the wilds of a still-untamed pocket of America.” The Washington Post found it “artfully conceived” although acknowledging parts of the show were ridiculous “{e}ven if rooted in some anthropological research.” The New York Times also found the show cartoonish, though cautioning “Maybe there really are Kentucky hill clans who act like the staff at Medieval Times, but the best efforts of the actors in Outsiders can’t make the Farrells credible.” The L.A. Times gave Outsiders a largely positive review, although noting during a publicity event for the show that a reporter “asked if some of the characters might be werewolves.”

It’s all in good fun, I can imagine the writers and producers saying, and I myself have had some laughs while discussing the show with fellow Appalachians. But I also think of the national outrage when residents of Flint had to drink bottled water for weeks because their own supply was polluted, yet there is no national outrage that in parts of Appalachia the water has been undrinkable for years. Appalachia has always given more to this country than has been given back, especially its natural resources and in times of war, as we’ve recently witnessed, its children. The region is diverse, and many areas are doing well, but for those that are not, might a show focused on “retard hillbilly animals” make it easier for America to ignore the region’s needs? I’m not advocating the show being banned or boycotted. I would even encourage people to watch Outsiders, but with one caveat: if this show were about any other minority group, would you find it nearly as entertaining?

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Ron Rash is the author of the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Finalist and New YorkTimes bestselling novel Serena, in addition to five other novels, including One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, The World Made Straight, and Above the Waterfall; five collections of poems; and six collections of stories, among them Burning Bright, which won the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, Chemistry and Other Stories, which was a finalist for the 2007 PEN/Faulkner Award, and most recently, Something Rich and Strange. Twice the recipient of the O.Henry Prize, he teaches at Western Carolina University. His latest novel The Risen will be out in September from Ecco.

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13 COMMENTS
  1. Lisa Britt says:

    I was raised in the mountains of Eastern Ky,. My Grandmother & Mother were both teachers, my Grandfather a High School Principal, & my Uncle was a college Professor. We lived in a small town, but even the Mountain People, as you might call them, we’re NEVER like they are presented on this show. I do watch the show out of total appall, at the ignorance it spreads.

  2. Rita Quillen says:

    I cannot tell you how grateful to see someone speaking out about this outrageous, insulting, infuriating piece of garbage show. Thank you, Ron, so much!! –Rita Quillen

  3. Jeri Gray says:

    Thank you. Thank you, for writing this. Someone people will listen to has to point out these stupid stereotypes or mountain people will continue to be the nation’s whipping boy. Thanks for all your wonderful books too.

  4. Evelyn Bales says:

    Bless you, Ron Rash.

  5. Patricia Brown says:

    Thanks Ron for your concern. I retired 3 years ago from a Community College in Big Stone Gap Virginia–in the heart of Appalachia. We do have one or two odd balls but the average “Hill Billy” is a hard working, family loving, peaceful person who generally minds his or her own business. The young people are about 80% college students and intelligent. They are also more often than not accomplished musicians. The movie Big Stone Gap honestly portrays us and also an older movie “the Fire Down Below” with Steven Chigal is honestly reflective of our area. I blame ignorance of who we really are on shows like the one you discuss.
    We survived the closing down of the tobacco industry; I hope we can survive our only other large industry leaving with the closing of the coal mines. Thanks again for your concern.

  6. Sue Taylor says:

    Thank you Mr. Rash.
    When will this ever end? I haven’t seen Outsiders. Do they mean for it to be comedy or just another way to denigrate the Appalachia area? Very tiresome, I’d say.

  7. John W. Farler says:

    WGN a Chicago station would do well to stick to a series on the Cretins in it’s own environs, instead of fictional people in other parts of the country. The series as you described has no resemblance to reality.

  8. Cathy Whitten says:

    Thank you, Mr. Rash, for once again being the voice that Appalachia deserves. This show is the worst of the worst and, as has been stated, a dart aimed straight at the only segment of society that it’s still OK to denigrate. As a 9th generation Virginia, currently living in the mountains of SW Virginia, I am disgusted again and again and again as we are all depicted as inbred idiots. Just a southern accent marks us as stupid to many. Add in that you live in the mountains and people wonder if your IQ is high enough to allow you out without a keeper. I’m so tired of it.

  9. Myles Alexander says:

    I enjoyed the blog; however, I must confess that “Outsiders” is a guilty pleasure. I am curious if there is any possible connection between the “clan” language (GEDGEDYAH!) and other customs and reality. If you watch the show enough you’ll realize that the mountain dwellers come out looking pretty good when compared to the cretins who live in the county below. Granted the stereotypes abound, but this series at least stirs interest in the area, versus yet another urban-cop-show pandering or worse yet, reality tv.

  10. Paul Kearney says:

    After I watched the first episode, I wrote an email to the ones who are responsible for it, and asked them questions about what the difference is between the Appalachians pf Kentucky and the rest of those parts of the nation systematically exploited that allowed them to commit such a hate crime as this show. Needless to say, they have yet to respond. What the show, and the reviews cited above have shown me is that the rest of the nation is hostile and ignorant toward us. Just look at the response to the Flint water ruckus. Although our waters have been polluted, sterilizing some bodies of water even, arable land lost through pollution and uncaring outsiders, and high occurances of certain ailments caused by the same, for over 100 years, more is being done for one city than for our entire region. No other group would be ignored by the Anti defamation league, and other activists if a show based entirely on their stereotypes and no truth, besides Appalachians.

  11. barbara lucero says:

    I will be following this
    thanks
    I share Appalachia with my students in my intercultural communications class

  12. Lisa Warren says:

    When I first read a description of this series I was like fantastic, can’t wait to watch it. I was born and raised in Eastern Kentucky. I couldn’t wait to watch this series, then I did and I was just sickened at the way they portray MY PEOPLE! People bitch about prejudice all the time for other races but its always okay to stereotype Kentucky people. I am so damned sick of it. We have more self respect and pride than half the population of this country and we deserve respect!

  13. S. Gray says:

    After watching entire 1st season of this show, I was curious as to what actual Appalachians thought of the show? I have never been there but I am intelligent enough to know that this show must be very offensive to the people that live there and also are from there. I only hope everyone who tunes in keeps an open mind.

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