This is semi-spoilery review for the double episode premiere of HBO’s The Outsider, premiering Sunday, January 12.
Even though True Detective rebounded with its third season (though not enough to be granted re-entry into the zeitgeist), nothing will ever match the thrill of Season 1’s mid-mystery foray into possible supernatural/Lovecraftian elements. Granted, some viewers were let down by the Season 1 finale because it didn’t go full-tilt with Carcosa and the Yellow King and all that, instead playing out in a somewhat pedestrian manner, but there’s no indication that diving headfirst into cosmic Old God waters would have given us a satisfying wrap up either.
The Outsider, based on Stephen King’s 2018 novel, is here to recapture some of that first run True Detective magic with a slow-burn Southern murder case that’s guaranteed to delve into the bats*** beyond. It’s literally going to have a bogeyman in it. It’s a guarantee. Again though, we still don’t know if these genres can successfully blend, but The Outsider’s premiere nicely kicks things off by filling its gills with all the other hallmarks that made True Detective work, like top-notch performances and artistically moody small town staleness.
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Jason Bateman produces, stars, and directs the first two episodes, after having just won an Emmy for directing an episode of his Netflix series Ozark, and brings a soulful heft to the story. No, he doesn’t have the visual flair of Cary J. Fukunaga, who was able to make such a huge impression with True Detective, but he’s got the right idea when it comes to presenting a reality capable of cradling a nightmarish tale – one that takes its time folding the “things that go bump” into the proceedings. He’s also spot on when it comes to his own performance and the work from the other leads, presenting an assortment of characters trying to come to grips with a confounding series of events.
Bateman plays a respected teacher and little league coach, Terry Maitland, who’s arrested, quite publicly, for the murder and mutilation of a young boy. It’s such a spectacle, in fact, fueled by local Detective Ralph Anderson’s own haunted past, that there’s no way that, convicted or not, this doesn’t ruin Terry’s life forever and permanently place an unwashable stain on his wife and kids. Ben Mendelsohn’s Anderson gets to wrestle with, and regret, this choice over the course of these first two episodes as conflicting evidence begins to surface. And it’s a great place to anchor these opening chapters, since it gives Anderson a reason to push forward and try to solve a case that can’t be explained with reason or rational thought.
Fingerprints and eyewitnesses (including security footage) seal Terry’s fate as the killer, though the cops adeptly notice that Terry’s actions feel like a man who wants to easily get caught. Terry’s actual alibi, which places him out of town with several witnesses, directly destroys the D.A.’s case and no one can make heads or tails of it. Having not read the book, and bearing in mind that numerous things have likely been tweaked for TV, I can only surmise that we’re dealing with a type of doppelgänger that frames other people for the murders it must commit to feed (probably).
Whether this turns out to be the case or not, The Outsider is going to definitely lead us down a ghoulish road, but this double-sized premiere definitely stacks the deck in favor of characterization and the human side of this crucible. Mendelsohn has always been at home with broken, “grey area” characters, so much so that this knack landed him a few blockbuster movie roles as sneering villains, so it’s great to see him play a more straightforward “decent” type – a cop who lost his son now trying to undo some of the damage he was tricked into causing. The case is such a nightmare that the story doesn’t need an anti-hero. It needs an earnest investigator who doesn’t know he’s about to get lost in the shadows.
Cynthia Erivo’s lead character, P.I. Holly Gibney (a recurring King character who also appears in the author’s Mr. Mercedes books), doesn’t find her way into the story during these two episodes, giving Bateman’s “Fish in a Barrel” and “Roanoke” a very purposeful set-up feel. This is the tragic Terry-centric inciting incident that starts Mendelsohn’s Anderson down a paranormal path, towards an endgame that anyone’s guess. At this point, he’s in it to help clear Terry’s name, but it feels very unlikely he’ll ever get to do that publicly given the way this apparent creature operates. So then what is justice on a show like The Outsider? We’ll have to find out. It’s off to a strong start, though.
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