Whenever one project succeeds, without fail Hollywood always green-lights a series of knock offs. “True Detective” season one kick-started the prestige HBO mystery genre. Stephen King adaptations have been around as long as Stephen King has been writing. The recent Emmy success of “Ozark” proves you can win over critics and audiences if you shoot the entire series in pitch black. Cobble these three trends together to diminishing returns and you have “The Outsider,” HBO’s latest show. The drama excels at establishing mood and boasts some strong performances. Overall though, it feels like a parody of how stoic, self-serious and dull prestige TV has become.
The setting feels familiar enough. A small town where nothing ever happens gets rocked to its core when a young boy is murdered. The prime suspect is Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman), a local teacher and baseball teacher, after a few witnesses point fingers his way. Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn), fresh off the recent, tragic death of his son, moves to convict Terry quickly, before all facts are heard. Even as Terry presents a strong defense, Ralph continues to push for a conviction.
“The Outsider” makes bold narrative leaps early on in the six episodes that were sent to critics. It soon becomes clear there is more to this case than meets the eye. In fact, the show toys with supernatural elements, though it never quite feels comfortable enough to lead with it. Stephen King’s writings have always expertly blended the fantastic with his portrait of a quintessential small town. HBO’s TV miniseries spends too much time luxuriating in misery rather than building the mythology of its world. Bateman pulls double duty as a director for the first two episodes, in addition to acting. He makes the show look like a murky second cousin to “Ozark,” rather than a macabre Stephen King creation. As the cinematography drains any bit of color from the palette, so goes any signs of life.
Still, one would be hard-pressed to find a more talented crop of actors on TV. For the most part, they each deliver interesting performances for characters that could’ve used a punch up.
Cynthia Erivo stands out as Holly Gibney, a private investigator who possesses mysterious powers. Holly enters the story offering to help Ralph Anderson’s investigation, stating upfront that she has rather unorthodox procedures. Erivo allows us to watch Holly methodically judge every scenario. Her eyes calmly move around rooms, looking for clues, ticks or any traits of a person that may give her a greater idea of their motives. She interestingly portrays Holly as fearful, almost visibly queasy, during these tense interactions. She’s a woman driven by an unwavering force that tells her to do the right thing. The show may have been more rooted in the supernatural and more focused had she been our protagonist and entryway to this world.
Instead, we spend the most time with Ben Mendelsohn’s Detective Ralph Anderson. We understand his desire to convict and restore order based on the recent death of his son. Together, Mendelsohn and Mare Winningham, as his wife Jeannie, bring to life an interesting portrait of a couple forever in mourning. Grief becomes almost another language, as its one of the only ways they are able to relate to each other. The Maitland case gives Ralph a cause to spearhead, as if solving the case will bring back his boy. Mendelsohn is an endlessly watchable and capable actor. However, many of his scenes feel repetitive, even if the actor is trying to give them each their own flavor.
These quiet stretches of show are broken up by Julianne Nicholson, playing to the back of the auditorium as Glory Maitland, wife of the disgraced Terry. Her speeches about Terry’s innocence and shrieking at Detective Anderson give the show a pulse it desperately needs once in a while. However, it also highlights how broadly the writers sketch out the female characters, outside of Holly. Both Glory and Jeannie are wives in grieving, but we never understand who they are before the traumatic events. There’s plenty of scenery to chew and tears to cry. Yet, there’s very little character to either of them. These skilled actresses deserve better.
All of these great, interesting actors have been assembled essentially to act into the void. It’s thrilling to watch Julianne Nicholson howl at the world, Cynthia Erivo quizzically examine a man or Ben Mendelsohn to work himself up. Yet, none of it amounts to a relevant or interesting story that keeps viewers coming back. Certain scenes and certain moments work, both from an acting and a visual standpoint. Unfortunately, strung together they never amount to anything compelling.
Despite strong performances, it’s hard to get a handle on what “The Outsider” is going for. Between all of its doom, gloom and monsters, what is it trying to say? At first it appears to be a heightened drama about public shaming and mob mentality. Yet, as it grows more supernatural, it loses its central theme. The show becomes more about vindication, but has little to say about who this monster is or what it has put the town and these families through. Ultimately, there’s a shallowness to “The Outsider” that makes everything feel a bit useless.