Stephen King is the king of horror. Just in this past year alone, King’s novels have inspired numerous screen adaptations: It Chapter Two, Doctor Sleep, Pet Sematary, and Netflix’s In the Tall Grass. Yet in HBO’s adaptation of King’s 2018 novel The Outsider, the dark TV series doesn’t amount to much suspense—rather, the episodes are weighed down with slow, lingering shots; dragged out plotlines; and a narrative that elicits more gloom than terror.
The 10-episode series dives into a criminal investigation with a supernatural twist. An 11-year-old boy’s body is found in the Georgia woods. Due to a slew of eye-witness accounts and physical evidence, such as numerous fingerprints and surveillance footage, Little League coach and local English teacher Terry Maitland (played by Jason Bateman, one of the show’s producers and the director of the first two episodes in the series) is immediately incriminated.
Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) is convinced Maitland is the killer. But Anderson, whose own son died of cancer, lets his personal life influence the investigation, clouding his judgment. He’s quick to condemn Maitland, arresting him publicly, branding him a guilty man, and consequently ostracizing Maitland’s family.
But just as quickly as Anderson arrests him, contradicting evidence surfaces: Maitland wasn’t even in town the night of the murder. He was 70 miles away at a teachers conference, and there are videos to prove it.
In the first episode, the plot bounces between these eyewitness accounts and the day of Maitland’s arrest, but as the evidence both for and against Maitland’s arrest piles up, the first episode ends suspensefully: How can a man be in two places at once?
It’s this very question that propels the show’s plot—which becomes increasingly more complicated as the show progresses. The show takes traditional horror and crime tropes and infuses them with supernatural components.
The series doesn’t just focus on the boy who was murdered or on whether Maitland is responsible for the murder—it also highlights eerier events affecting Maitland’s and Anderson’s families. Maitland’s youngest daughter is tormented in her dreams by an invisible, outside force, and in many scenes, a mysterious figure is seen silently watching.
Playing into the “outsider” theme, many of the shots in the series are framed from a distance, through doorways, and at odd angles, lending weight to the idea that there is someone or something observing from the outside.
Directorial decisions such as these may also have been chosen to depict the confusion and disorientation Anderson and Gibney feel as the investigation intensifies. Yet some of these shots also obstruct gorier scenes, merely hinting at crimes, suicides, and deaths rather than fully displaying them.
For both writer Richard Price, whose credits include The Wire, The Deuce, and The Night Of, and producer Bateman, The Outsider is their first foray into the horror genre. Yet true horror elements only exist in small doses in the show.
The Outsider focuses more on the characters’ grief and an overarching somber tone rather than scare and suspense. As Anderson continues to mourn his own son’s death, a funeral is dragged out, murders and a suicide are graphically depicted, and each character takes a turn facing the camera with prolonged expressions of agony.
The show’s cast, consisting of Bateman, Mendelsohn, Julianne Nicholson, Mare Winningham, and Cynthia Erivo, is well chosen—especially Mendelsohn and Erivo.
Erivo effectively depicts Holly Gibney, a psychically gifted sleuth, with an awkward intensity, but it’s disappointing that her character isn’t introduced sooner in the show. To explain the unexplainable, Gibney is hired by Anderson’s team. For those unfamiliar with King’s work, Holly Gibney was first introduced in the trilogy Mr. Mercedes, and she’s reintroduced in the book and TV series in The Outsider. While Anderson remains grounded in the facts gained from his investigation, Gibney pushes him to consider new possibilities.
As the investigation extends beyond Georgia’s borders, where the story begins, Anderson and Gibney learn to navigate the mystery as outsiders themselves. But they soon learn that being perceived as an outsider only creates greater division. It leads to pointed fingers, families being pulled apart and ostracized, and individuals feeling stuck—on the outside looking in.
Featured Image by HBO