An Inside Look at The Outsider
Given the early shots of HBO’s new limited series — looking over the body of the child, the early looks into a brutal murder in a Southern setting, the cynicism of the investigators — one could understand just why so many reviewers were willing to just write it off as the most recent incarnation of True Detective. But it becomes clear very quickly that we’re nowhere near the world that we’ve become familiar with. The most obvious reason is the ritual natures of the crime in that series were still grounded in reality. Within thirty minutes of the first episode of The Outsider, its very clear that this is a world that Cohle and Hart could never have tolerated, much less tried to solve a murder.
The early moments, when Lieutenant Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn giving yet another Emmy worthy performance), does seem like were in that territory as we go through the investigation. But soon after Anderson very publicly arrests the suspect Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman), it becomes very obvious that this is not going to be normal. Anderson already has doubts about how the murder of a young child was done carefully, yet afterward his behavior is ‘Come catch me’. Especially when Terry has an ironclad alibi for the exact time of the murder — one that puts him in two places at once on videotape. Anderson is clearly baffled, but before he can go any further, Terry is basically assassinated on the courthouse steps.
Even now, you could make the argument this was still True Detective territory — until halfway through the second episode when its becomes clear that this is a Stephen King work. A man begins haunting Terry’s daughter’s dreams, telling him to drop the investigation. The crime scene shows fingerprints that are deteriorating, and an unknown substance that can’t be scientifically identified. And it’s become clear that there is something far more insidious haunting this investigation.
But the most crucial way that The Outsider is not True Detective is that woman are far more prominent than they ever were in any season of that. Terry’s wife (played by the superb Julianne Nicholson) as someone who believes in her husband’s innocence and finds her family becoming pariahs after her husbands murder. Ralph’s wife (Mare Winningham) provides a level of support that is even harder — they lost a son earlier and Ralph admits it nearly broke them apart. She finds a way to help the Maitland’s even after their dead. And in last night’s episode, we met the most critical character, an investigator sent to try and figure out the backtrail of the Maitland family, Holly Gibney. Those familiar with King’s work, in particular the Mr. Mercedes trilogy may have a picture in their head of Holly that doesn’t match Cynthia Erivo at all. But having seen her for just one episode, its impossible to imagine any other actress in the role. Some purists may argue about turning Holly into someone who is borderline savant in this story, but it may fit the confines of how showrunner Richard Price tells the story. (Given the interconnected nature of King’s work, its unclear if Gibney’s work with Ralph Hodges will enter the story at all. This may be an easier way.) But it helps that Holly is the one person is the whole find willing to accept the unexplainable, something that so far none of the other protagonists seem capable of doing.
The Outsider isn’t perfect. The lighting and the cinematography have struck me as sorely lacking, which may work for a horror film but when you’re trying to tell what’s happening on a TV doesn’t help. And the fact that so many of the critical deaths in this story, noted on so well in King’s novels, happen almost entirely without dialogue will make it difficult for even the Constant Reader to keep track of. But it may be one of the best adaptations of Stephen King for television in a very long time. And for those out there who don’t like Stephen King, this series might just change their mind.
My score: 4 stars.