The Outsider debuted earlier this year to little fanfare and even less discussion.
None of the genre and entertainment sites that I frequent have covered the show with the same voluminous enthusiasm they’ve shown for other HBO offerings like Season 3 of True Detective or the recently wrapped up Watchmen.
Produced by and starring Jason Bateman and Ben Mendelsohn, The Outsider is a ten-episode Richard Price adaptation of Stephen King’s 2018 novel of the same name.
The show begins with the discovery of the body of an 11-year-old boy in the woods outside of a small Georgia town. Mendelsohn leads the investigation that soon produces eyewitnesses and physical evidence pointing to the guilt of a local teacher and baseball coach played by Bateman.
Being a Stephen King novel, things are not going to be that straightforward, so naturally, the supernatural occurs.
Fortunately, The Outsider is King at his most subdued — think The Green Mile or Mr. Mercedes and not the stimulant psychosis clown world of It or The Wastelands.
Richard Price, the screenwriter and novelist behind Clockers, Ransom and five episodes of The Wire, lends a further layer of realism to the milieu of families, lawyers and cops dealing with not only unspeakable tragedy but also unexplainable phenomena.
The writing, the performances, the craftsmanship of the production are all top-notch and the product that this team has delivered to HBO includes one of the finest opening episodes ever.
It’s atmospheric, it’s claustrophobic, it’s visceral, it locks you in.
Unfortunately, this is a level of intensity that has only been carried forward by four or five other shows in all of television history. The Outsider hit a turning point early in the second episode that you wish it hadn’t, because what we were experiencing as true existential, personal terror becomes merely an investigation into the causes of past horrors.
Granted, it’s an unusual who-done-it yarn done exceptionally well.
So much so that I would say that The Outsider is the more deserving inheritor of the True Detective Season 1 mantle rather than the third season of that show.
Additionally, this show is clean. There is absolutely zero soapboxing or pandering that I can see anywhere. It’s just straight-up storytelling: interesting characters being confronted with unique mysteries and bloodhounding their way out.
The only issue I had is when the primary focus switched from Mendelsohn and his crew to the autistic researcher and PI, Holly Gibney, played by Cynthia Erivo.
When Erivo was presented as Holly Gibney I nearly quit watching because on one of my all-time favorites, Season 1 of Mr. Mercedes, Gibney was portrayed by Justine Lupe and I was rather fond of her character.
In Mr. Mercedes, Holly Gibney is a shy, reserved young woman that uncovers her own abilities and confidence while she is uncovering clues.
In The Outsider, Holly Gibney is a badass savant who can tell exactly how tall buildings are a glance and casually rattles off the makes and models of dozens of cars as they pass under her hotel window.
It’s doubtful most readers have seen any of Mr. Mercedes, so they likely won’t have a problem with swapping out the actresses and amping up the character.
Personally, I would have liked to have seen my Holly Gibney, the one true Holly Gibney, come into her own as an experienced, worldly investigator but in the past three episodes, I’ve grown to appreciate the quiet stillness Cynthia Erivo has brought to the role.
Overall, this is a very small gripe to be troubled by when looking at the entertainment value of the show in its entirety.
And even though Erivo’s Gibney takes a good amount of screen time each episode, it’s still evenly split with Mendelsohn and his team of cynical, crotchety dudes, each of whom is given good dialogue and enough freedom to delivery some great takes.
So far through five episodes, The Outsider meets all of my criteria for a minimum viable product:
- It keeps my attention
- It doesn’t offend my aesthetic sensibilities
- The writers refrain from preaching or condescending
- I look forward to the next episode
While it remains to be seen whether Price will find an ending in Stephen King’s work that can come close to being worthy of its beginning, do yourself a favor and give at least one episode of The Outsider a watch.
You will only regret it if you don’t.