If you thought Michael Bluth’s “Arrested Development” shenanigans or Marty Byrde’s “Ozark” misfortunes were the worst problems Jason Bateman would face in his career, the one he faces in HBO’s new Stephen King miniseries “The Outsider” will leave you surprised and horrified.
Lucky for viewers, his adaptation of the 2018 novel may just be some of his best work yet.
“The Outsider” follows Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) as he investigates the kidnapping and brutal murder of young Frankie Peterson in the fictional town of Cherokee City, Georgia. When physical evidence and circumstances behind the crime implicate beloved community member and baseball coach Terry Maitland (Bateman) as the man responsible, Anderson moves for a shocking public arrest.
Community members quickly turn as fingerprints, DNA and other pieces stack up to create a lack of doubt, until shocking new evidence unearthed by the defense places Maitland far away from the crime scene when the murder took place.
Unable to explain how one man could possibly be in two places at once, Anderson and other detectives are forced to consult private investigator Holly Gibney, played by recent Oscar-nominee Cynthia Erivo, for private work. Holly’s savant-like detective skills, photographic memory and other special talents make her a bit of an outsider herself when formally introduced, but as clues become more mysterious and circumstances more paramount, the findings they uncover lead them to suspect that something far more sinister may be at work.
Executive produced by Bateman, with a script penned by veteran writer Richard Price (“The Wire, “The Night Of”), the draw about “Outsider” lies not in the mysticism surrounding the murder investigation, which fans of HBO’s similarly-toned “True Detective” should enjoy.
Rather, a strong combination of those elements, alongside realistic depictions of true crime investigation and procedure, work to scare you far more than just ordinary bumps in the night.
Scenes that could seem improbable surrounding the typical “wrong man accused” storyline become enriched by Price’s ability to create emotional and resonant dialogue, littered with moments that genuinely showcase a sense of hopelessness for everyone involved. Highlighted through a menacing scene involving Maitland and his cellmates at the end of the first episode, the rippling effects of these character-driven interactions not only work to create a much stronger feeling of empathy for Bateman’s character as the show progresses, but also provides a greater sense of connection for viewers to understand the sense of shock experienced by his loved ones, particularly his wife Glory – played by Julianne Nicholson.
The show may have the King name attached, but supernatural elements largely remain in the peripheral. It’s the real people involved in the case that beg further questions about how quickly our society condemns those who are initially accused in the legal system, and makes audiences consider whether similar circumstances could be happening now – hopefully with a few less monsters involved.
While the teleplay enhances the series far beyond other King adaptations, wonderful performances from both Mendelsohn and Erivo provide audiences with contrasting positions for analyzing a wide range of possibilities surrounding the mystery. Shedding his antagonist reputation from previous work on Netflix’s “Bloodline” and films like “Rogue One” and “Ready Player One,” Mendelsohn excels as Anderson – an ordinary, small town cop still grieving the death of his own teenage son, unable to accept that anything beyond human could have caused such a heinous crime.
The grounded performance keeps the show ashore in those practical elements in early episodes, later setting up the arrival of Gibney to bring her eccentric personality and superstitious beliefs towards the forefront as the season progresses. Character actors Bill Camp and Jeremy Bobb also provide strong supporting performances, each serving as seasoned members of the defense team looking to prove Maitland’s innocence in the case.
Despite only sitting in the director’s chair for the first two episodes, Bateman’s dark, gloomy style from “Ozark” returns and continues to emerge as one of the best working directors in the television industry. Although some moments contain such dark visual choices that audiences to strain their eyes in order to interpret what exactly is happening before them, the sense of atmospheric unease provided by the cinematography places viewers directly in the somber mood the teleplay aims to portray – especially as the clues that may lead to Maitland’s innocence mount even higher.
Intercuts between current moments and flashbacks, especially between Anderson and his grief, are swiftly placed together and made seamless during real time. They help reveal the true motivations behind the man’s immediate condemnation of Maitland, later working to forecast why he seems so despondent in moments of reflection.
As the series progresses, I am curious to see where the investigation ends up – especially as the paranormal becomes more involved. Very few moments in the episodes released so far have made me question whether or not I was watching a horror story or the latest episode of “48 Hours” on a lonely Saturday night with my parents, which is the ultimate goal of great storytelling.
You can find the first four episodes of “The Outsider” now streaming on HBO GO or HBO NOW. .