Let’s get one thing straight here before we talk about HBO’s The Outsider. These days, one can’t walk into a movie theater or turn on a streaming device without being rattled by the sight of a Stephen King adaptation. In the case of this drama series, the premium cable network knows they need to bring something different to the table in addition to “spooky.” HBO’s also still clearly of the mindset that they must keep following up Game of Thrones with event TV series, and to that end, they have succeeded so far in unexpected ways. Watchmen? My god, what a ride, whether you were a fan of the comic book or not. Chernobyl? That one spread like word-of-mouth wildfire, engineered from an unlikely source (one of The Hangover guys). Now HBO is doing King. Again, they’ve delivered something different than expected. The effort is mostly successful although not perfect, and it’s a hell of a slow burn, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Honestly, I think people are starved for that type of thing. Streaming services are now living by the binge-it-all-right-now bible, and The Outsider will unfold on a weekly basis in an impeccably parceled out manner. It’s also a puzzling, unsettling mixture of chilling horror and murder mystery that isn’t actually true crime, but it feels realistic enough in places. That’s what helps amplify the fear factor when the supernatural realm starts to poke at characters who could be the guy (or gal) next door. It’s also written chiefly by Richard Price (The Night Of, The Wire, Ransom), and it can be frustrating to witness at times and (probably) purposefully so. Given that there are so many skilled hands in this pot, viewers will feel elements of the familiar, but the whole of the show still feels fresh, despite the oppressive subject matter.
That’s also the case despite a pair of leads who fit pretty neatly into Agent Scully and Mulder-esque boxes like they stepped out of The X-Files:
Detective Ralph Anderson: “I have no tolerance for the unexplainable.”
Private Investigator Holly Gibney: “Well then, you’ll have no tolerance for me.”
Ralph’s portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn, who’s likely enjoying a rare good-guy role, although he’s carrying a heavy burden. He also refuses to place faith in the unearthly, although he’s working on a case that’s so unsolvable and eerie that they’ve called in the unorthodox Holly, a character who’s already known to Mr. Mercedes readers (and viewers, as she’s played by Succession‘s Justine Lupe on the Audience Network). Cynthia Erivo does a damn fine job with this role, resolute and refusing to be intimidated, somehow emerging as the most relatable character from an audience standpoint even though, in a sea of small-town faces, she’s really the most offbeat of them all. She’s the key to figuring out why two sets of facts don’t match up, and even when she’s making unsafe (and unwise) moves, she’s still the one most worth rooting for, even when perhaps we should be more than a little frightened on her behalf.
The less said about the actual plot, the better, although it’s no real secret that Jason Bateman’s character, Terry Maitland, a high school teacher and baseball coach, stands accused of murder. Ralph has him publicly arrested in a community where everyone’s on a first-name basis, and people are quick to turn against each other in fear. At first, the case in question — a ghastly and brutal killing of a young boy — seems clear cut. After all, forensic and eyewitness evidence ties Terry to the scene. Done and done? Nope. Forensic, eyewitness, and CCTV evidence also ties Terry to a professional conference many miles away at the time of the killing. Regardless of whether or not Terry is guilty, the damage to his reputation has been done, and while the investigation continues, his family’s fending off harassment and threats. And perhaps the wrongs that people commit against each other are just as nefarious as, say, evil spirits that might be lingering.
Since we’re talking about King, it should come as no surprise that the supernatural realm makes an entrance, and this series is scary as hell in some parts, but there are still baffling aspects. One of these elements is truly distracting and really must be mentioned: This show is dark, through and through, and (arguably) more than necessary. And again, I don’t mean all of the subject matter and tone stuff or even the fact that many scenes go down in a seedy strip bar or any of that. I mean, it’s literally dark, visually speaking.
Yes, there’s a great deal of screentime where one can’t see what’s happening. That’s awkward and counterproductive. It makes the show less scary in what could be its scariest moments. Yes, there’s much to be said about milking the fear of the unknown, but a telling combination may be to blame for this visibility snafu. On the same cable network that aired a 82-minute battle that Game of Thrones viewers could barely see, Bateman has directed the first two episodes of The Outsider. He also hails from Netflix’s Ozark, which has grown infamous for its endless palette of blacks and greys and blues. The end result is almost ironic, and not in a way that pays off for the audience.
It’s a baffling aspect of a show that’s otherwise full of pitch-perfect tension, twists, and turns. Six out of ten episodes have been screened for critics, and — at least during the first half of this series — I truly wasn’t sure what was going on during a few scenes without rewatching them and straining to see character reactions. That took me out of the experience, although this happening might be alleviated if one turns out the lights and watches on a giant screen. Realistically, however, this isn’t how most people watch TV these days, so we can expect that criticism to make itself known once the show launches. I suspect that people might make a meme out of a character who grows fixated with lamps, which feels like an unintentional troll job, but maybe there’s a connection to the entire season that will play out later? We’ll see.
Ultimately, The Outsider works as a chilling tale that’s mostly unconnected to the grand scheme of Stephen King works (which are referred to as a Universe by some folks). That independent quality works a lot of magic in its own right, alongside the inherent spookiness of the source material itself. The series is filled with compelling characters who are gloriously acted, and this foreboding work is worth the viewing time invested, even if it’s not always visually rendered in the kindest manner.
HBO’s ‘The Outsider’ premieres on Sunday, January 12.