I deliberately avoided reading Stephen King’s novel The Outsider when I heard it was being developed into a limited series, because I love me a good mystery and I wanted to go into the show absolutely cold. And I’m so glad I did, because while I can’t speak to its quality as an adaptation, I can say that The Outsider is one creepy-as-hell detective story that’s equal parts True Detective and Dracula, told in a style that is unmistakably King’s. It’s a darkly entertaining mystery bolstered by strong performances and a crime so perplexing you’ll be scratching your head bald during the first several episodes trying to solve it.
Set in a small town in rural Georgia, the show opens with the discovery of the horribly mutilated body of 11-year-old Frankie Peterson (Duncan E. Clark). Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) begins his investigation and learns that the prime suspect is Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman), a beloved little league coach and upstanding pillar of the community. Maitland’s fingerprints, DNA, and saliva are all over the crime scene, and he was recorded on several surveillance cameras engaging in bizarre, self-incriminating activity in the hours after the crime was committed. Outraged by the crime and Terry’s undeniable guilt, Ralph has Terry arrested in the middle of a little league game, in front of the entire town. But Terry insists he is innocent, and moreover that he was out of town at a teacher’s conference the day of the murder. And when Terry’s lawyer Howie Gold (Bill Camp) produces a local news video clearly showing Terry at the conference, over 50 miles away at the exact time Frankie was killed, Ralph is forced to reevaluate his entire investigation. How could Terry Maitland possibly be in two places at once?
Mendelsohn has already established himself as a compelling actor with a surprising range (he can play intense, brooding characters seemingly as easily as over-the-top, cartoonish villains), and he carries the show with understated grace. Ralph is a somber but steady man, emotional yet meticulous in his search for the hows and whys of things. At one point he declares, “I have no patience for the unexplainable,” which encapsulates his character perfectly. When faced with the truly unexplainable case of Terry Maitland, he just keeps looking. Mare Winningham gives an excellent performance as his wife Jeannie, a probation counselor sharing his grief over the recent loss of their son to cancer. They’re an extremely believable couple, and her quiet, gentle earnestness compliments Ralph’s determined compassion perfectly.
Cynthia Erivo is always a welcome presence (particularly her performance in the criminally underseen Bad Times at the El Royale). Here she plays Holly Gibney, a private investigator hired by Gold to try and clear Terry’s name. Holly is King’s take on the broken genius detective. It’s a tired trope at this point, and an easy role for actors to take too far over-the-top. But Erivo plays it with an interesting mix of human computer and agoraphobic, socially maladjusted earnestness. She’s a know-it-all kid genius that never really grew up, merely got older. Holly challenges Ralph’s steadfast belief in logical scientific truth by presenting the theory that Frankie Peterson’s murderer might be supernatural in nature.
After getting a career revitalization by playing long-suffering straight man Michael Bluth on the cult hit comedy series Arrested Development, Bateman has proven himself to be a capable dramatic actor as well with his current role on the Netflix series Ozark (and in the underrated thriller The Gift, which might be my favorite performance of his). His casting as Terry is an excellent choice, and he channels plenty of charming likability to portray the all-American dad. But Bateman has always had an edge to his characters, as if he’s about to explode in a sudden rage, and that quality of his is well-utilized in The Outsider to cast doubt on Terry’s pleas of innocence. And the quiet menace of his character as he appears in flashback sequences of the various witnesses’ testimonies is genuinely chilling. When a little girl recalls spotting Terry walking out of the woods where Frankie’s body was found, his mouth and chin literally covered in blood, he looks completely vacant, the depleted aftermath of violent frenzy. It’s a haunting image, particularly after we learn the agonizing details of Frankie’s murder.
In addition to playing the prime suspect, Bateman also executive produced the show, and directed the first two episodes. Of the six episodes I was given by HBO to write this review, those two are the strongest, and Bateman’s direction suggests that he knows exactly what is spooky about rural America. The world of The Outsider is perpetually creepy. Filmed primarily in Georgia, the bare trees and the muddy piebald landscapes take on an eerie gothic quality that is captivatingly unsettling. The primary currency of The Outsider is unease and confusion. It never leaves you totally confused for very long, but it enjoys keeping you on your back foot. In a meta way, we get to experience what Ralph and the rest of the characters are feeling, completely bewildered by the impossibility of the crime and struggling to come up with an explanation.
The score is another standout. Composed by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (who also score Bateman’s show Ozark), the music is sparse and synth-heavy, punctuated by moodily resonating low tones. It perpetuates the sense of hidden doom on the approach, like something is very wrong just below the surface of perception. It’s spooky and stressful and excellent.
Without spoiling too much, my only complaint with The Outsider is that the basic game might be a little too obvious for horror fans or die-hard King devotees. I found myself spending a few episodes waiting for the characters to catch up to revelations I had already guessed. But the show is so gripping, and the characters are so well-crafted, that I really didn’t care. The Outsider is a captivating blend of police procedural and supernatural horror that spins a satisfyingly scary mystery yarn for those who can stomach its darkness.