Having just received an Emmy last year for his direction in Netflix’s “Ozark,” Jason Bateman does a magnificent job with the first two episodes of HBO’s “The Outsider,” establishing a definitive starkness for this compelling however imperfect adaptation of Stephen King‘s 2018 novel. He also does fine work on-camera as Terry Maitland, a man who has been accused of a vicious child murder, with many witnesses placing him at the crime scene, and even behind the wheel of the suspicious white van that was recovered with Terry’s fingerprints everywhere. The cop that brings him in is Ben Mendelsohn’s weary Ralph Anderson, who previously lost his own son to a horrific murder, and is far from a sense of closure. When Ralph has English teacher and family man Terry arrested in public, in front of 100 people at a Little League game, it’s incredibly damaging to Terry’s family, including his wife Marcy (Julianne Nicholson). With a great balance of past and present, the pilot then retraces the crime and its many weird details through eyewitness accounts, while touching upon what Terry claims he was doing at the same time—many miles away.
“The Outsider” (adapted by writer Richard Price) quickly populates itself with such fascinating contradictions, while establishing the dynamics of its many wounded characters in a small Georgia town where everyone is on a first-name basis. A world is quietly developed through incredible performances that are finely tuned for all the grandiose feelings covered, like how Nicholson’s Marcy carries the burden of shame when her husband is accused of being a child killer, or how Bill Camp barrels into the story as a forceful family lawyer named Howie, clashing with the authorities who are convinced Terry did it. Mendelsohn in particular gives some of the best work of his career as Ralph, a man helplessly flung into a case that only reflects his own painful question marks, which he proceeds to shoulder in a casual way that’s disturbing itself.
In a way that it’s unlikely to top (speaking as someone who has seen the first six episodes), the pilot for “The Outsider” is all-cylinders direction for TV. Bateman matches King’s grim hybrid of horror and mystery with a perfect visual style, the camera slowly creeping on characters as they talk quietly in spare, shadowy spaces. And because his actors are so good, they carry many scenes of dialogue that all the more command your attention, with shots that are always longer than you expect them to be. Coupled with a palette that kills any bright color in sight, it all then ends on perfect notes as a weary Terry lays wide awake in jail, anticipating his day in court: scratching violins from a score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Juriaans, like the tolling of bells in the distance.
And then, minutes into episode two, everything gets blown up in a way that confirms “The Outsider” as another major, bold series from HBO. I’ll try to not spoil what happens during it (or in the episodes after), but “The Outsider” changes the kind of story you think it’s going to become, changing the focus from Terry’s case, and does so with jaw-dropping brutality. The bleakness of the story is presented like an epidemic, one that depicts regular people pushed to acts of violence on themselves or others, all inspired by a nightmarish sense of hurt. Shocking violence becomes one of the show’s biggest weapons, and it becomes all the more effective when posited as a reflection of any person’s ability for such terror.
Episode two is titled “Roanoke,” and the show references that phenomenon (in which a town of English settlers just disappeared in the 16th century) before then starting to seek its own concrete explanations, at the expense of rendering some of its metaphors about grief and terror into too-literal plot elements. Though the show gets weirder and weirder in its weekly installments, it never shakes the feeling that it’s headed toward a copout explanation, directly related to how it slowly sheds the human factor in its initially unexplainable horror. In light of recent King adaptations like “It,” it’s a clunky approach—if there’s a murderous, fear-eating spider-clown entity at the pit of all these dark themes, just show them to us.
Enter Cynthia Erivo and her investigator Holly, who sets “The Outsider” on an analytical path that’s strewn with more murders, while Ralph and the others (including his wife Jeannie [Mare Winningham], who becomes a larger force in later episodes) sit back home with their sadness, sometimes in a form of character-based plotting that can run stagnant. A savant-level investigator, Holly is introduced looking outside her window and naming the cars (and their engines) that pass by below; she’s later seen listing of the heights of different trees. She’s been assigned by Ralph to retrace Terry’s last few steps, and is quickly shown to have a rapidly analytical brain and a quiet demeanor, conveying her ideas in between sharp exhales, her eyes always widened. It’s the type of character who could easily have been overwritten, but Erivo’s sensitive, full-bodied performance grounds her—a significant feat given the developments that happen during Holly’s investigation, which involve an expansive connecting of dots that no previous investigator has made.
The other character who starts to dominate the plot, but who is more harmful to the story’s tension than helpful, is a cop struggling to hold it together named Jack (Marc Menchaca). He privately experiences a freaky string of events that offer the show a way to cheat in its presentation of evil, sometimes cutting to his personal hell (again, no spoilers) to provide the illusion of information naturally being shared. His beats are meant to largely supplant the show’s slack scary side, and they make for uncharacteristic flourishes: in-your-face camerawork and cheesy sound cues, the kind of stuff that seems miles away from the excellence of the first two episodes. Yes, this is a Stephen King story, but this arc exemplifies how much “The Outsider” can struggle to blend in certain horror elements to its grounded pain.
Tone and style go a long way for “The Outsider,” starting with how it leaves a lingering impression that’s as equally searing as the show’s abrasive acts of violence. But then as the series loses some of its grace, the tone juicebox out like a crucial factor that validates some of its kookier developments. A lesser series wouldn’t be able sincerely incorporate what “The Outsider” leads itself up to (especially by the end of episode four), and yet some out-there twists are able to taken seriously because of their presentation. It’s not much different than when you finally see what’s in the mist outside the grocery store in Frank Darabont’s Stephen King adaptation, “The Mist.” You either go along with the reveal because the story is serious about it as part of its larger themes, or you check out.
In HBO-speak, the most immediate comparison for a series like this, at least by its first six episodes, is certainly “True Detective” (even given Price’s previous miniseries, “The Night Of.”) Now that HBO has wound down “Watchmen” and put away “Game of Thrones,” the network has returned back to the same type of mystery that had viewers tuning in specifically for strange monologues, an unforgiving atmosphere, and excellent performances. But as participants in the slow burn of “True Detective” saw, that series flourished in the philosophical and ephemeral, until it finally slammed into nightmarish reality. “The Outsider,” on the other hand, can too readily turn its ominous details into obvious ones, but it has a hell of a way to suck you in.
Six episodes of season one screened for review.