When the characters realize that the world they know is actually “something else”, they have definitely crossed a threshold. The thin membrane they might otherwise call normality has been punctured and the air of stability is leaking out. There is an attempt to hold their worlds together, to grab hold of something stuck. But it is, inevitably, too late: there is no bet Ordinary back when it never existed in the first place.
Almost all fiction involves characters trying to fix or improve their world. But only one genre is literally aimed at the world, the universe and existence: “weird fiction” or “new weird fiction”. This genre involves stories about the everyday, the normal, imbued with an otherworldly, abnormal and strange aspect at its core that reverberates to conclude nothing is as it seems. The realization unravels all around the object or the space, embracing the world and therefore the characters.
A modern classic is by Jeff Vander Meer Annihilation, about a ribbed area called “Zone X” that threatens the whole world (it’s moving, see?). Caitlín R. Kiernan pits bureaucracy against another world that calls the Earth into her Agents of Dreamland. Mark Z Danielewski’s leaf house is about what happens when the boundaries of your home extend into parts of the world or universe that shouldn’t exist. HP Lovecraft’s characters realized they were insignificant entities in a universe ruled by unfathomable eldritch entities. David Lynch and Mark Frost twin peaks slowly stripped down the reality of small town America to a cosmically nightmarish place. NK Jemisin pushes the boundaries of what cities are The city we have become.
Essentially, the (new) weird is about infusing what we take for granted and showing how, at its very essence, what is normal is in fact not. When you can’t trust a house to be a house, how can you believe reality is true?
In the new series from Amazon Outdoor beach, the threat to normality is much simpler: a gigantic hole. This mysterious, seemingly bottomless hole emits strange noises and fumes. Set on a modern Wyoming cattle ranch (run by Josh Brolin’s patriarchal Royal Abbott), Brian Watkin’s neo-Western fiction seems to be what happens when dallas meets David Lynch.
The penultimate episode and the season finale will air on May 6. And a lot of things have happened to get us there.
The problems of a modern cowboy town, with missing women, bar fights, and the first (acting) gay sheriff, are literally punched through a spooky hole on a ranch owned by a family called the Abbotts. This is the “weird” – embodied in a noisy void. It’s a negative space, one that suddenly carved itself out of the world as the characters have always known it.
But the Void isn’t the only strange new entity to appear in town: Imogen Poots’ Autumn Rivers (an intentionally ridiculous name for an unintentionally ridiculous character) is a mysterious hippie wanderer who arrives alongside the Void, wanting camp at the Abbott ranch. Like the void, Autumn begins to insert herself into the Abbotts’ lives, ruining, upsetting, and generally refusing to leave the family alone. Autumn seems to be deliberately written, so it feels like even we, the audience, are in a closed room with a gnat. His relentless presence, his refusal to walk away, reflects the realization that the characters suffer when confronted with the harsh truth that reality is inherently broken: once seen, there is no escaping it.
Emptiness and fall become shards in the Abbotts’ lives, gouging the membrane of their normality. Old wounds rise to the surface, what was thought to be buried reappears, and ghosts of other times and places are glimpsed out of the corner of eyes and memories.
Although he doesn’t understand it, Royal incorporates the void into his life. It becomes a hiding place, a dumping ground, and, with some intervention from Autumn, a portal to…elsewhere. But just because it’s used doesn’t mean it’s understood.
Royal discovers that the earth (as in the ground itself) itself is not what it seems, that the void may be altering times or is a portal to a dimension, which may work in both sense. The characters’ attempt to balance and keep their world in the teeth of this creaking cosmic displacement puts Outdoor beach somewhere in the vast tent of the weird kind.
Outdoor beach made for dallas what Breakup did for office space: to insert the bizarre, the uncomfortable, the strange into a familiar genre. Just as audiences are familiar with soap operas involving cowboys or movies about corporate drudgery, the characters themselves are comfortable with their world and realities. Yet, by adding a weird element, such shows upend what we and the characters know. We’re in because it’s unclear where it will go, what it means for the world and the reality we/they initially thought we knew. The weird genre works because the storytelling isn’t about solving a mystery or defeating a big bad, it’s about us suffering with the characters having an existential crisis. Like (other) horrors, it’s enjoyable because the crises we experience are, at least, contained in the four corners of the series.
Outdoor beach is enjoyable not just because it’s mysterious, well-written, and beautifully shot with stunning sound design. It’s enjoyable because it allows you to experience the pain of insignificance, the horror of sudden ignorance but, unlike the characters, to come out the other end. It’s all inherently…wrong. While there may be answers – and certainly the show doesn’t shy away from giving us some responds faster than expected — the ride is more enjoyable. Nothing will put back the membrane of normalcy. We, like the characters, are only for a bitter displacement of the ground we walk on.
Focusing on the unsettling emotional journey, rather than the plot details, is at the heart of the weird. You will never get proper and definitive answers. It’s not because of a bad plot like Lost, but because the “answers” in such stories are inherently inscrutable. What are Lovecraft’s designs Eldritch the gods have? Why is Daniewleski’s house on Ash Tree Lane infinitely complex and unconstrained by space and time? What is Judy into twin peaks?
But such stories assume that everything is broken, that truth leads to “madness”, that our bitter brains are too simple to understand. With this premise, the answers will never solidify. The membrane that held it all together is gone.
And, as some horror writers love to note, letting the audience’s imagination run wild is often a worse curse than providing an answer (there’s exceptions). I’m not looking Outdoor beach for answers: I place it firmly within the confines of a managed existential crisis, traveling alongside Josh Brolin as he navigates his collapsing universe – sometimes quite literally – around him.
Stories don’t have to give answers — or at least concrete answers — that fit like a missing puzzle piece. And it’s a genre that’s not, I would say, designed for answers but for experience. We already have Poirots and Marples: now is the time for more voids and cosmic crises. Bring the bubbling blackness.
Outdoor beach is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.