On the surface, HBO’s The Outsider emerges as an above-average Stephen King adaptation. Remember when that was unheard of? That a good Stephen King adaptation (for example, Misery) felt like a unicorn? For every Stand By Me or Carrie or The Shining (I fall in the “masterpiece” camp on the latter), there’s a Lawnmower Man or a Tommyknockers or a Maximum Overdrive. King’s sprawling narratives are often hard to capture in a 2-hour feature film. Instead, they fit perfectly within the expansive time allowed by television.
90’s offerings The Stand and IT sat for a while near the top of most lists of King adaptations (even though both either have been or will be remade). Now that we’re in the golden age of television, King’s works feel perfectly suited to the limited series format in which the right talent can take their time to adapt his complex and sprawling stories.
With The Outsider, Jason Bateman, recent Emmy winner for Netflix’s Ozark, adapts King’s novel with The Night Of‘s Richard Price. The tone here is less IT and more True Detective. That means that your good guys are morally complex, and they’re given to lengthy pontificating about life’s deeper meaning. It also means that supernatural elements are heavily afoot. For the six episodes I’ve seen, the balance feels right even if 10 episodes threatens to risk stretching the material beyond what it can support.
Ben Mendelsohn plays Detective Ralph Anderson who is faced with finding who gruesomely slaughtered a local boy. All eye witness and forensic evidence points to Terry Maitland (Bateman), the little league coach, English teacher, father and all-around great guy. Trouble is, Terry Maitland wasn’t in town when the murder was committed. In fact, he’s on public access videotape 60 miles away attending a literary conference. But he’s also on security cameras in his home town. How can the same man be in two places at once?
The first two episodes as directed by Bateman are gradually paced. They linger on moments of silence, atmosphere, and grief stricken expressions. It’s a study of how people react to grief. About how it permeates our existence. About how some carry on because they have to. About how some give up because they can. The beginning of the series plays more like an emotional police procedural. Supernatural elements feature later in the series.
Mendelsohn’s delivers exceedingly strong work through his lead performance. His Anderson is haunted by own sad past, and he’s looking for something to take the edge off the pain. Then, he’s conflicted with guilt and uncertainty. He wears that all vividly on his face in the several quite, pensive moments of the series. He’s supported excellently by Mare Winningham, Julianne Nicholson, Paddy Considine, Bill Camp, and an intense Cynthia Erivo.
I have only two concerns about the series. First, Bateman’s languid direction in the first two episode allows for great character reflection, but it borders on drawn-out. There are moments that could use some editing, the camera held a few minutes too long and scenes dragging slightly. Second, I’ve read the original novel, and I’m not confident that 10 episodes is the right length of the limited series, particularly given the languid pacing of some of the early episodes. I’m hoping Price and Bateman found a way to juice the ending to provide a pay-off for their slow burn limited series. King’s novel, for me, doesn’t climax in an entirely satisfying fashion. It resolves the central plot, but it certainly doesn’t feel very cinematic in its execution. Here’s hoping they’ve restructured the ending in a more thrilling way.
Still, The Outsider emerges as a very strong HBO limited series. And I would watch for Mendelsohn come Emmy time. His performance is the one to ignite the power keg.
HBO’s The Outsider airs Sunday night at 9pm ET.