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First impressions of HBO’s ‘The Outsider’

The Outsider, a 10-episode adaptation of the Stephen King’s 2018 novel of the same name, is set to premiere January 12 on HBO. Since I’m a big fan of the source material, I was eager to see if this series would do the book justice. As most King fans know, his work often does not translate well to the big or small screen.

After watching the first six episodes, however, I’m happy to report that HBO’s The Outsider has set itself up to be a smashing success. Assuming the show continues the same level of quality from these episodes into the second half of its run, it’s easily on par with other successfully adapted Stephen King works…which I’ll admit isn’t a very high bar.

So let me put it this way: Even if you haven’t read novel it’s based on or any other books by the greatest horror writer alive, you’ll probably still dig the heck out of this series.

For this review, I’ll be speaking generally about the first half of the series as opposed to an episode-by-episode recap, which will be posted after each one airs next year. I’ll try to remain as vague as possible with regards to spoilers, although if you want to go in completely blind, then just trust me that the show is good and turn back now.

I’ll also be looking at the series from the perspective of someone who is actively comparing it to the source material, which certainly won’t matter to everyone, but definitely will for those of us who greatly enjoyed the novel.

The Premise

When the horribly mutilated/violated corpse of a young boy is discovered, DNA evidence and multiple eye witnesses all point to his murderer being Terry Maitland, a beloved member of the community.

After his very public arrest during a little league baseball game, however, different and equally compelling evidence of Maitland’s innocence comes to light. Detective Ralph Anderson soon finds himself in the middle of an impossible investigation that threatens to destroy anyone who comes near it looking for answers.

What Works (so far)

Much the like the novel, the opening portion of The Outsider is absolutely riveting. Even before the contradictory evidence takes hold of the narrative, the impact of Frankie Peterson’s brutal killing and Terry Maitland’s presumed guilt feels like it could have been enough to carry the series on its own.

Much of this can be credited to Ben Mendelsohn, who portrays detective Ralph Anderson in a manner so close to how I envisioned the character from the book that it’s uncanny. Even without the benefit of getting to be inside his head, we are right there with him on his journey from justified rage to reluctant skepticism to paranoid frustration.

Jason Bateman also deserves a great deal of credit for presenting Terry Maitland as both the world’s best father/husband and a potentially terrifying child killer. The scenes featuring him and Mendelsohn were so intense that it felt like my television might explode.

Speaking of intensity, Julianne Nicholson plays Mercy Maitland (Terry’s wife) with a near perfect amount of anger and grief without ever slipping into a state we can’t identify with as an audience. She strives and fails for normalcy through a storm most of us could never imagine going through–but if there was ever a blueprint for how most of us would handle and react such a set of circumstances, it’s her.

One character who’s portrayal I’m actually enjoying far more than I expected is Jack Hoskins. Instead of the completely unlikeable and irredeemable lout he was in the book, Marc Menchaca gives him a small yet effective amount of sympathetic guilt and humanity. It makes what he goes through feel far more interesting and connected to the main story.

Of course, part of this is due to the fact that Hoskins IS actually more connected to the main story and characters than he was in the book, which so far appears to have been a wise choice.

And then we come to Holly Gibney, who is played by Cyntia Erivo and very different from how I envisioned her in the book. Aside from being younger, more attractive, and a different race, this version of the character does not have the benefit of being introduced and fleshed out during the Bill Hodges/Mr. Mercedes series. There’s no mistaking that her mind and personality work on a completely different wavelength than most people, especially considering how much more intense she is than her literary counterpart.

That being said, my feelings about Erivo’s version of Gibney followed almost the same path as it did in the Mr. Mercedes series: Wasn’t sure I liked her much at first, but now she might be my favorite character.

I absolutely love the way she relentlessly hunts down and compiles evidence, presenting her meticulously detailed findings with only one end in mind: The truth, no matter how unbelievable it might be. It would have been easy (and extremely lazy) to have Gibney be a savant plot device who just puts clues together to keep the narrative moving. Thankfully, the show goes to great lengths demonstrating how she pieces together logical puzzle pieces of that fit into a seemingly impossible conclusion.

It’s because of Gibney–and Erviro’s fantastic performance–that the show is able to survive a slight lull in the third and fourth episodes. Those of you who have read the book know how things will evolve from the police trying to solve an impossible crime. Gibney’s dogged and brilliant detective work manages to keep that same grounded (and wonderful) sensibility where no sensibility should reasonably exist.

As far as the overall story is concerned, The Outsider initially presents itself as a slow burn procedural with a dash of horror. While the pace does slow down considerably after the first episode, it remains methodically consistent, doling out information and evidence that both drives narrative and contributes to a near oppressive-sense of creeping dread.

While all this is taking place, the crime at the center of The Outsider puts our characters through the ringer and then some. In some cases, the danger is tangent to the devastation wrought by Frankie Peterson’s horrific death. Other times, the threat is something so direct and terrifying that it’ll make your spine freeze.

If those of you hoping for a grounded detective story are worried about the horror aspect of the series, please don’t be. Even when the answers to the investigation’s questions don’t make sense, Holly Gibney and the rest of the investigative team steadfastly refuse to jump headfirst toward fantastic conclusions. Aside from one slightly contrived moment (which I’ll discuss a bit later), every piece of evidence is examined from every possible angle, sometimes to the slight detriment of the show’s pacing.

That’s not to say the show is ever boring. Even the “slow” sections crackle with foreboding energy or provide us with new clues that lend forensic credence to what should be impossible.

So yeah…you’ll have to watch this one without scrolling on your phone.

What Doesn’t Work (so far)

Much as I love the way Ralph Anderson and Holly Gibney are being portrayed, the show gives both characters a new facet that completely feels unnecessary. It Gibney’s case, it actually takes away a from her otherwise brilliant ability to find and piece together information on her own.

With Ralph, the big change in his character also ends up significantly changing the portrayal of his wife, Jeannie. Mare Winningham certainly makes the best of it, but I still liked her a lot better in the book.

There are also a couple of contrived moments during the investigation that end up linking our characters to the show’s biggest reveal. Considering how meticulously crafted the rest of the narrative is, it’s a shame that the show’s writers decided to cut a portion of the book that would have fit into the story (and the investigation) much better.

Speaking of the book, the show suffers from the same minor ailment of never quite regaining the same brilliant intensity it had during the opening chapters. That being said…

The Verdict

One of the things that excites me about HBO’s The Outsider is where it appears to be headed. While the book was great from cover-to-cover, it lost a bit of steam after sucking me in. Four episodes into this series, I was starting to feel the same way. It was still highly engrossing/entertaining, but not quite as great as it started. By the time it reachers the sixth episode, however, things are set up to possibly be even better than the book.

Yes, I know that’s somewhat blasphemous to say–and I’m not saying it will happen for sure–but it certainly feels possible.

Whatever the case ends up being, The Outsider will debut this January with a first half shows all the signs of being a truly great television series. Whether you are a constant reader or just constantly searching for something on par with the first season of True Detective, you’re bound to enjoy the heck out of this one….

….but don’t just take my word for it.

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