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TV Review: HBO and Fusion’s ‘Outpost’

Variety logo Variety 12/19/2016 Sonia Saraiya
© Provided by Variety

We are in the era of television programming where a docuseries originally developed for Snapchat is now debuting on an HBO channel. “Outpost,” a 10-episode half-hour docuseries developed by Fusion, is mostly made up of even shorter vignettes. The pilot episode is comprised of two 15-minute segments; later episodes put three vignettes together. For an adventure/investigation show, these are rather quick forays into far-off lands — the season ranges from Oaxaca to Argentina, from Easter Island to Suriname. But specificity is “Outpost’s” mission — to not just visit these locales but to understand a piece of the local concerns. What the series picks out to focus on feel focus-grouped for that particular combination of the buzzy, the unexpected, and the far-flung — kite-surfing in Colombia, marijuana in Paraguay, surfing therapy in Nicaragua.

“Outpost” seems developed in the vein of HBO’s programming with VICE — which spans specials, newscasts, and a weekly series — with a more upbeat sentiment. Instead of zeroing in on issues with a slightly macho aggression, “Outpost” opts for a lower-impact curiosity — focusing, with slightly absurd intensity, on the most positive reading of its subjects. So a trip to Haiti to discover its post-earthquake music scene becomes an upbeat segment about human fortitude creating “songs from the rubble,” as opposed to, say, a darker or angrier investigation about disenfranchisement.

A lot of media designed for millennials has a mantra of positivity (BuzzFeed, famously, has a “no haters” policy in its books section). But the problem with insistently optimistic programming, from a purely technical perspective, is that it can ring false to the viewer. “Outpost” is a well-produced show with a lot of lively interactions and engaging mise-en-scenes, but it has the produced veneer of infotainment, and in the pilot episode offered to critics, the grit of third-world marginality did not translate well to the screen. Instead it seemed a little like “Outpost” was a credit card commercial, eager to make the best of what is, empirically, a bad situation.

Still: Whatever. Some gloss is nice, and “Outpost” is in unique in that it chooses to focus on hyperspecific communities across Latin America and the Caribbean. (This goes toward explaining why “Outpost” will only air on HBO Latino and HBO Zone, so as not to compete with its network-mate “Vice.”) It’s vivid and informative, finding a way to get up close to the interviewees that feels especially intimate. In addition to the show’s regular correspondents, “Outpost” will have guest correspondents doing some of the adventuring. Jon Batiste, Stephen Colbert’s bandleader on “The Late Show,” starts off the first episode by searching for music in Haiti. In one scene, a woman stops him to tell him in Creole that his jersey is on backwards. He grins engagingly and replies, “I know.” They both laugh and shake hands. Future correspondents will include Vine stars, trans activists, and Mike Tyson.

“Outpost” is not redefining the wheel, nor is it particularly trying to. But it’s an interesting tonal counterpoint to Vice’s work on HBO, and speaks to growing options for bringing information about the world to younger audiences.

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