If you at first passed up on The Outlaws
because it featured the name of Stephen Merchant, and you associate Merchant with Ricky Gervais and the cruel, but admittedly clever, wit of The Office
, which left you cold, then join the club. Or maybe the clips made it look pretty silly.
Think again. What Stephen Merchant and his co-writer Elgin James have put together for BBC One and Amazon Prime is – and this is a stretch, but keep up – a series that resembles more than anything The Seven Samurai
or The Magnificent Seven
. But with much more humour.
Take seven strangers, who against their will are corralled into giving something to a society for which they have very little love or sympathy, and you will have the bare bones of the plot. Just as the seven samurai reluctantly joined forces to protect a threatened community, here these rather un-magnificent and very human law breakers discover, in the end, the power of the group, and how the community is very much about themselves.
This is billed as a 'dark comedy', which seems fair enough. Set in Bristol, the conceit is that these seven disparate characters have all committed offences for which the punishment is community service. Their 'crimes' range from shoplifting to fraud, dangerous driving and public disorder, and beyond. Their task is to clean up and make fit for purpose an abandoned community centre in Bristol, perhaps a metaphor for a whole broken and threatened society, where the estates are dangerous and even those with supposedly privileged lives feel a sense of desperation.
Lady Gabby, for example, daughter of an Earl (played by Eleanor Tomlinson, who arrives in a taxi), for all her privileges is a lost soul, usually high on coke, desperate to be liked and always trying to create something of which her father (Richard E Grant) will approve. While she is played for laughs – the outfits, the comic timing, the repartee – Lady Gabby is often the one who sees the vulnerability in others.
Everyone has a back story, revealed one by one, that led to their sentence. Rhianne Barretto, playing mixed-race A-level student Rani with a proclivity for nicking clothing, also, like Gabby, wants to make her parents proud. This is a theme through the series: lost opportunities, the bitter clashes and misunderstandings between the generations in families, broken families.
Her offer of a place at Oxford becomes threatened, especially when she gets involved with another of the seven, Christian (played by Gamba Cole), who is forced by circumstances to come much too close to the serious criminal gangs on the Bristol estate where he and his sister live.
Why is he looking after his schoolgirl sister? What happened to their parents? Their relationship is one of great tenderness but also the fractiousness that comes with siblings, all of which is quite brilliantly caught in the script-writing. This is so believable, and carried well by Aiyana Goodfellow as his sister Esme. Merchant can make a scene very funny in one moment, and break your heart in the next, when the story unfolds and a corner is turned.
Under the watchful eye of Community Service Supervisor Diane (Jessica Gunning), the seven on the community payback scheme – wearing their coloured tabards – pick up litter, shift the bins, sweep, shovel and occasionally lark about. However hard she tries, Diane cannot keep this group on the job. She has thwarted ambitions, a longing to join the real police, and her attempts to imitate police procedure are both hilarious and at the same time touching. Part of her would like to be a member of this odd gang.
Music features throughout the series, unexpected musical interludes occur in which song lyrics cleverly relate directly to the action in a subversive way, including a bit of dancing, not to mention Christopher Walken's turn at karaoke. He is an interesting study, an older man, in and out of prison, now returned to stay at his daughter's home while bearing an ankle tracer. He, too, cannot quite connect with his family.
The seven share an emotional stumbling block; all are afraid to love, to put it plainly, because of having been abandoned, let down or feeling never to have been good enough. Loyalty and truth feature large. In this, The Outlaws
is a world away from The Office
, where the laughter was at the characters, rather than understanding and laughing – or crying – with them. There is a warmth here, and a deeper psychological understanding of everyone's need to be seen for who they are, even if they have not reached this level of self-awareness.
Stephen Merchant plays the lawyer Greg, who is mocked by his colleagues, cannot really keep up with his files, and does not understand why his wife has left him. Despite his timidity, he learns how to take a risk, a rather large one, when by accident the group becomes involved with an enormous amount of drugs money. Things turn violent and unpredictable, even dangerous. They need a lawyer. Yes, it isn't plausible; it does become absurd; but, like the stand-off in The Magnificent Seven
, they believe that together they can succeed in their crazy endeavour as they discover strength and deviousness they never knew they were capable of.
perhaps fell between two stools, one of those programmes that set up certain expectations, and when its trajectory went off in a different direction it created confusion. There is a subtext, an undercurrent, that is at heart a political statement about where the country is right now in terms of what can we expect – what should we expect – from those who are in charge of overseeing the society in which we live. Running this as a theme in a series that is hugely funny makes it seem all the more prescient, given where we are now as a country, divided and disillusioned being the mindset for many.
The issues of education are brought out by young Esme's dire situation, where she lacks family and community support; the so called 'war on drugs' doesn't get anywhere near protecting the vulnerable of all ages – both rich and poor – from powerful, smooth, suited dealers in the big cities; the community centre itself, a broken symbol of an underfunded and neglected promise, is a reminder that a place where people could get together was once considered crucial to a healthy society.
Stephen Merchant treats these themes with quite a light touch, except when he doesn't, and even then it's subtle. The scene in which it is revealed why Esme lives with her brother and not her mother is more effective than many a documentary, and more engaging because we have become fond of these characters, as 'real' people. And then there are the comic moments, far too many to mention. It is a series that is generous with humour and proficient in the understanding of human foibles. You have to laugh. They really are a magnificent seven.