The Outsider” (Sundays, HBO) is written, directed and paced with such slow-burn confidence that a viewer can almost fool themselves into thinking this isn’t just another Stephen King novel adaptation. Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a lot of King’s catalog; I count some of his books and their movie versions as masterpieces. But it’s hard to disguise the Kingian cliches on display in this adaptation of his 2018 novel.
Plus, honestly, how many King adaptations do we need at the same time? This is one of four King series on the air right now, and two more are in development. Four King movies came out in 2019, and three more are in development. But OK, if something’s good, it’s good, so let’s take a look at “The Outsider.”
The first part of last Sunday’s two-episode premiere, “Fish in a Barrel,” calls to mind “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile” in its stark critique of the justice system. Jason Bateman – who also directs these two episodes written by “The Wire’s” Richard Price – is in the role of the wronged man, Terry Maitland.
A viewer’s blood boils as Terry is arrested while coaching little league baseball, and not asked about his whereabouts during the murder of an 11-year-old boy until days into his jailing. We get anger-inducing things like the prison bully promising to injure “child-killer” Terry, but we are spared that cliché because “The Outsider” takes a turn before it gets there.
The turn comes in a chaotic sequence outside the courthouse at the end of the episode – a sequence that presents a huge logic hole. Terry’s lawyer, Howard (Bill Camp), has distributed by TV news media a video of Terry at an out-of-town teachers’ conference at the same time as the boy’s murder. But the crowd calls Terry a killer. There’s no way that the video proving Terry’s innocence would not have made the social media rounds and led to a crowd of people declaring his innocence and shouting down the police.
“The Outsider” calls to mind the true-story-based “Unbelievable,” wherein the detectives put their assumptions ahead of working the case. But Ben Mendelsohn undercuts this – for better or worse – as Det. Ralph Anderson. Mendelsohn plays the character in “Captain Marvel” who seems like a bad guy but then turns out to be a good guy – and we’re glad because we like him.
The actor’s innate likability, maybe stemming from his slight speech impediment, makes a viewer want to forgive Ralph despite his shoddy police work. On the downside, it also seems like the writing doesn’t match the characterization.
Episode two, “Roanoke,” inches closer to turning “The Outsider” into the supernatural mystery we knew it was from the beginning, even if the first hour doesn’t admit it. Terry is in two places at once: at the teachers’ conference and also in the small Georgia town killing the kid. (I thought this was Texas when watching the ep, but the web tells me it’s Georgia.) Eyewitnesses and even DNA evidence point to Terry picking up the kid in a van and then being covered in blood near the corpse’s location and then fleeing to a train station, where he’s caught on camera.
Since we also see a hooded figure with a putty-like face (I think of Clayface from “Batman”) lurking around, I think it’s a good bet Terry’s double is a shapeshifting extraterrestrial. And that’s the hurdle that’s going to be hard for “The Outsider” to overcome: This mystery may be masterfully portrayed by the actors and director, but we know where it’s going.
Or do we? I have to admit episode two is almost in a different genre than episode one – cop work giving way to crazy mystery. And there are potentially deeper layers to peel back. Notably, Terry’s daughter, Jessa (Scarlett Blum), has nightmares where she sees “a man” in the room. Presumably she’s seeing the putty-faced guy. But if that assumption is wrong, then maybe “The Outsider” is playing a grand game where each episode takes a sharp turn.
Cynthia Erivo will make her series debut Sunday as Holly, a supernatural investigator; the actress recently earned an Oscar nomination for playing Harriet Tubman in “Harriet.” (Holly is also in “Mr. Mercedes,” but played by a different actress.) Erivo joins an already loaded cast that includes Julianne Nicholson as Terry’s wife, Glory, playing tense scenes across from Ralph, the detective who wrongfully arrested her husband.
The technical quality of “The Outsider” is so good that it elevates what is objectively a ridiculous mystery. I’m watching it like “Ooh, could it be a shapeshifting alien?” Well, of course it’s a shapeshifting alien. But at the end of the day, I do want to come back for episode three, so I guess “The Outsider” has hooked me despite its flaws.