'The Outsider': TV Review

Strong lead performances cover for a thin mystery and limited scares.
1/12/2020

Cynthia Erivo and Ben Mendelsohn are solid anchors for HBO's Stephen King miniseries, which offers a supernatural twist on a 'True Detective'-style mystery.

There was a subset of viewers who experienced disappointment at the end of the first season of True Detective because the central mystery was resolved in concrete terms and not on the loopy, trans-dimensional, Cthulhu-infused level that may or may not have been hinted at.

That audience might be the target demo for HBO's new limited series The Outsider.

Like the Stephen King novel it's based on, HBO's The Outsider is an interesting, but not completely satisfying experiment. It's an intentional collusion of incompatible genres, an answer-driven police procedural intersecting with ephemeral supernatural elements that have to be believed before they can be seen. With novelist Richard Price developing the book for TV, it's no surprise that it's the former genre that dominates, without wholly clicking, through the first six episodes sent to critics.

Ben Mendelsohn plays Ralph Anderson, detective in a midsize town that has been rocked by the murder, tinged with sexual violence, of a young boy. Haunted by the recent death of his own son, Ralph moves quickly to arrest the primary suspect, Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman), a beloved local baseball coach. Ralph has witnesses and evidence pointing toward an ironclad case against Terry, but if it were that simple, The Outsider wouldn't need to run 10 episodes and things are about to go confusingly and nightmarishly wrong.

Although the opening scene features quick-cutting horrors from the crime scene, the first two episodes are more mechanical and plot-driven than visceral. As director of those initial hours, Bateman proves again that he's got a superb eye for framing, an admirable confidence at steering understated performances and an eagerness to substitute shooting in limited light for more nuanced tone-setting that, after Ozark, borders on self-parody.

As an actor, Bateman tries hard to give Terry uneasy grace notes and he delivers one tremendously chilling monologue on the unlikely topic of drag-bunting, but he can't overcome the frequently problem that plagues King when he works outside of Maine: The Outsider, transferred from Oklahoma in the book to Georgia, has no particular sense of place and that contributes to none of the characters having any particular voice or distinctive traits. The result is that not-insignificant questions like, "How can a person accused of murder be in two places at once?" become more like, "How can a person accused of murder be in two places at once if neither place really feels like a place at all?"

HBO will smartly pair those first two episodes as the premiere, before the series gets a tremendous boost in the third episode with the arrival of Cynthia Erivo as the outside private eye hired to investigate a very unusual turn in the Maitland case. Erivo is playing Holly Gibney, thus far unacknowledged as the same character handled excellently by Justine Lupe on Audience Network's Mr. Mercedes and a part with enough individual quirks and oddities to easily stand out in this ensemble of great supporting actors — Bill Camp, Yul Vazquez, Jeremy Bobb, Paddy Considine — playing negligible roles.

Erivo is playing an edgier, more independent version of Holly, delivering the only hints of humor in this otherwise glum dirge. She's accompanied by the story's genre transition toward horror and although actual scares are few and far between, the insinuation that a bizarre, faith-crossing entity is involved in the show's central mystery is an improvement over the more general initial confusion about facts not lining up.

They mostly don't share scenes together in the series' first half, but having Erivo's Holly as the open-minded believer and Mendelsohn's Ralph as the dour skeptic gives The Outsider a central dyad worthy of a True Detective comparison. That show's creator, Nic Pizzolatto, never would have tolerated the lack of geographical and cultural specificity on display here — it's strange how Price, a novelist with a deep and abiding interest in race and economic disparity, has brought none of that to this project — but he'd surely admire the self-seriousness in this world of grieving families and stumped authority figures.

Beyond the effective contrast of Erivo's charismatic obsessiveness and Mendelsohn's committed solemnity, there's still room after six episodes for another performance to really spark in The Outsider. Much of the warmth between Ralph and his wife that added variety to the book has been washed away in their chilly sadness in this iteration, leaving Mare Winningham underused. And Julianne Nicholson, as good as it gets when it comes to playing internalized torment, has been given that attribute and nothing else to play as Maitland's wife. Given the arc of the book, I have hopes for Considine, playing one of the key witnesses against Terry, standing out in the series' second half, because he's too good to be this wasted.

The entire theme of The Outsider is putting that classic Sherlock Holmes maxim, "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth," to the test — to introduce the impossible into a genre that relies on proof. So far, even with Erivo and Mendelsohn as sturdy stars, The Outsider hasn't quite found a way to give its plunge into the unknown the juice it needs.

(Producer MRC is a division of Valence Media, which also owns The Hollywood Reporter.)

Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Cynthia Erivo, Bill Camp, Mare Winningham, Paddy Considine, Julianne Nicholson, Yul Vazquez, Jeremy Bobb, Marc Menchaca and Jason Bateman
Developed by: Richard Price, based on the novel by Stephen King
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)