The Outlaws: Season 3 REVIEW – Another Day At The Office

Same Bristol, same old scene.

the outlaws

This third instalment of The Outlaws – Bristol’s own motley crew – is tricky to lay judgement upon. It’s falling into the formulaic, it’s the third round of by and large the same setup, so yes, this is familiar territory. But the territory is still one that’s very enjoyable. In large part, it’s an exercise in seeing how long Stephen Merchant can play out the same rope.

When the main gang were all on the same community service project, it made sense that such a disparate bunch might end up reluctantly working together. Now, though, them still being any kind of group is leaning heavily on big thumping plot points from seasons past to drive the action, and the fact they still end up working together in the face of all their own objections feels like they all took some kind of blood-brothers oath offscreen at some point.

Even if we grant that the events of the first two seasons served to provide that kind of bonding experience, certain plotlines are still actively flaking off and peeling away from everything else that’s going on. In particular, Eleanor Tomlinson’s Lady Gabby (having dragged Merchant’s hapless lawyer Greg along with her) has practically nothing to do with the main plotline here, and on the rare occasions they do intersect with the rest of the action it is inevitably their strongest moments.

And Merchant’s Greg is an exemplar supreme of what I’m talking about in terms of rerunning the same old beats. You have to admire a man who will write an (accurate) description of himself as looking like ‘a giant paedophile’, throughout The Outlaws Merchant has mined his own quite singular appearance for comedy very well. But he sticks a bit too rigidly to this trick, rather than (for instance) branching out and describing his co-star as a woman who looks like she’d use the pelts of small and endangered rodents as sanitary towels.

These pairings-up are, if not formulaic, then a bit too willing to square things away into little boxes. There’s Gabby and Greg’s weird domestic arrangement, Ben and Rani’s will-they-won’t-they, Myrna and John’s unlikely friendship (which would likely be a much better will-they-won’t-they if the show hadn’t foisted love interests on them). Even Jessica Gunning gets a little sidekick this time around, and it’s helpful for their fey banter to put a hard upper limit on just how frothy it all gets.

But the main gang is still the meat of it, and in turn the supporting characters remain a bit of a weak spot. The new faces this time aren’t quite as cartoony as the meant-to-be-hated sketches of the second run, but most of them are so nothingy you might miss the caricatures. There is one bright spot in Ricky Grover’s copper from the Met, who’s a picture-perfect representation of the kind of bore who thinks one half-witty comment should become a running joke (curiously, Merchant tends to make such figures stout and black-haired, like his old writing partner Ricky Gervais, but I’m sure there’s nothing to read into that).

The Outlaws is still walking the fine line between its rough, tough gangland antics and the lighter material of, for instance, Merchant talking frankly about sperm. And this is a line it manages to balance upon more confidently here, bringing the subtlety to invoke the threat of violence without ever needing to get too graphic about it. The most alarming example here – a friendly thumb-severing – is leavened by, what else, Merchant then developing a bit of a complex about his own thumbs, since they always seem to be popping up when he least expects them to.

That’s The Outlaws basically finding its level. It’s a production that’s always enjoyed a mildly heightened reality, and not in a way that ever really jarred. But here there’s a major chink in the armour, in that everyone knows the details of Rani and Ben’s climactic breakup in the second season. It’s a funny running gag, and one that effectively uses the kind of comedy of specificity that The Outlaws has always been au fait with, but it’s also one that tests the audience’s suspension of disbelief, and punctures the reality of the setting, in a way the show simply hasn’t before.

When it comes to sheer dramatic tension, The Outlaws has always been chasing the first episode’s high-water mark of needing to walk through a metal detector with a gun (a tough act to follow in anyone’s book). The increasingly formulaic nature of the narrative is, sad to say, poison to any sort of tension. By now it’s clearly not an anyone-can-die affair like The Sopranos, so we are left merely to wonder how they’re going to get into mischief and then out of it again, as they’ve already done, twice.

As with the supporting cast, though, there is an exception here, and it’s in wondering exactly how nasty a figure Rhianne Barreto’s primus inter pares Rani really is. Despite everything she was always the most gung-ho of the main gang, and here the narrative makes much hay from the tension of just how far she’s willing to go. Which leaves you wondering if there isn’t more – much more – it could be doing with her than a sophomoric love triangle. It was, after all, her going through that metal detector back in the first episode.

The show’s go-to method of whipping up tension elsewhere, throwing in twist upon twist, simply can’t compare to the tension inspired by an established and looming edifice – be this a metal detector, or our increasingly intense Sri Lankan-Polish YA protagonist. The traffic jam of twists keeps things moving in exciting enough fashion, but never hits the full-on edge-of-your-seat nervousness where you believe everything could go badly wrong at any second.

The Outlaws are still a likable enough gang, one you want to spend time with, and want to see succeed in the latest wacky criminal escapades (it helps that here it’s more heist-focused, than pretending to know how drug dealing works). But it’s for precisely these reasons that you have to hope they won’t outstay their welcome. This third season doesn’t go that far, but the fact the idea springs to mind should tell you something in itself.

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the outlaws
Merchant's spaghetti-west country thriller is still a fun watch, but is showing the kind of strain - and giving off the sort of creaks - that suggests it was never meant to have a third instalment.