I can’t believe how many great actors are on The Outsider. HBO’s mystery miniseries premieres Sunday with the discovery of a mutilated dead child — which is, admittedly, how every prestige-y copy show tends to start. But here the detective is Ralph Anderson, played by Ben Mendelsohn. The Bloodline Emmy winner and Marvel Skrull is practically his own archetype at this point: sad, searching eyes, ever-so-Bogart-ish lisp. Ralph’s wife, Jeannie, is played by Mare Winningham, and my new TV-procedural heaven is those two solving murders at the kitchen table with Google and Chinese takeout.
Ralph’s search for the killer leads him to a strip club run by Claude Bolton — pause to appreciate British actor Paddy Considine, who always looks like the best pint of beer you’ll ever cry into. And, at one point in the tense premiere, a lawyer at a driving range answers a phone. The scene is shot from an extreme long angle. (A lot of the camerawork frames action distantly, a cool effect when it’s not an awkward style gimmick.) It takes a while to realize that the performer is the ever-mesmerizing Bill Camp, The Night Of‘s crusty cop who was definitely maybe God on The Leftovers. Two episodes later, there’s another phone call — and the actor who picks up on the other end is Cynthia Erivo, Harriet‘s breakout icon!
Not to mention the boldface names in the credits. The Outsider is a Stephen King novel, adapted for television by Richard Price. That’s quite a literary crossover, promising freaky everyday American gothic crossed with gritty-wit street crime. HBO is airing the first two hours on Sunday, and they deliver with an immediate twist. Ralph catches the prime murder suspect in the premiere’s first 10 minutes. It’s Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman), a beloved local baseball coach. The evidence against him stacks so high you need an oxygen mask. There is video surveillance, witness testimony, even fingerprints on dismembered body parts.
Bateman also ably directs the first two hours. And The Outsider initially offers two very different sides of the Arrested Development straight man-turned Ozark bad-breaker. “Coach Terry” is a pillar of the community. Flashbacks and security cameras reveal a freakier Terry, with a dead-eyed stare and blood trailing from his teeth. But counter-evidence immediately complicates the story. Somehow, Terry was miles away from where he simultaneously was.
It spoils not very much to say that something very strange is happening. You catch sight of a mysterious fellow in a hoodie, whose shadowed face looks dangerously like a prosthetic someone forgot to finish. When I initially wrote a review for our January issue, I had seen three episodes, and I worried that some of the (apparently) supernatural elements were overly familiar, right down to the imaginary friend who may not be so imaginary.
HBO made three more episodes available since my review. The network also asked me to clarify that this is a “drama series,” not a miniseries. I’ve lost track of what any categories mean on television, anyways, and the best parts of the show comprise a handsome new entry in HBO’s lineage of mature crime dramas. There’s the bleakening mood of a True Detective mixed with the detail-oriented rigidity of The Night Of (which Price co-wrote). Ralph’s peaceful small town turns toward mob mania after Terry’s arrest, and the community-breaking rush to judgment upends his family’s life. There’s a tantalizing freakout possibility that some nefarious presence is weaponizing the righteous anger of everyday citizens, turning friend against friend.
The series is most successful as a culture clash of investigative types. Holly has a hyperbrain on the Monk-Sherlock spectrum, and Erivo’s endearingly unfussy performance shades emotion and curiosity into a role that could’ve gone over-the-top. Ralph’s an endearing normal-guy detective, all flannels and dad khakis. I just used the word “endearing” twice in a review for a show about a dismembered-kid corpse, so that has to be some kind of rave. And that is why I gave The Outsider a B+ after the first three hours.
Two problems emerge in the middle episodes, neither ruinous, both troubling. First, this is the first HBO season I can remember with the definitive Netflix drama problem: You can always feel it overstretching itself. This is a 10-episode season, and that’s just too long. Considine’s hangdog character has some larger part to play, which means he gets one sequence per episode of melancholy glowering. Holly picks up the investigative baton in episode 3, leaving Ralph with nothing to do. A shadowman in a hoodie keeps appearing, with a creeping tension that edges toward parody. You keep waiting to get to, like, the second half of any X-Files, when everyone besides Scully figures out something weird is happening. That moment takes The Outsider six episodes.
How does the show pass its own time? Here’s the other big issue: It cycles through the same emotional beats for every non-Holly character. Ralph and Jeannie are mourning their own late son, via flashbacks and psychiatrist visits and repetitive conversations. Terry’s wife Glory (Julianne Nicholson — what a cast, man, what a cast!) deals with the fallout of her husband’s arrest, and that’s her entire role. There’s a general sense of strangulating grief-doom, dramatized with scenes where crazy stuff happens to someone who suddenly WAKES UP in their bed.
I haven’t read the source material, but I’ve read a lot of King, and I worry this series is confusing the author’s morbid humor for plain old morbidity. I remain hopeful, though, and am somewhat optimistically keeping my original grade in place. Ralph’s colleague Jack (Marc Menchaca) is on a dark journey that edges toward straight-up paranormality — and Menchaca himself is an apex Stephen King performer, embodying a smirkingly drunk maybe-maniac hiding serious wounds behind a quarterback’s exterior. So The Outsider is here and there: Incredible cast, dynamite opening, too-leisurely progression, overly familiar execution. Watch with care, but watch.