The Outsider raises a question that viewers of mystery-box TV often face: Is this show good, or is it just making me curious — or both? The more I watched the new HBO crime thriller based on the 2018 Stephen King novel, debuting Sunday, the more confused I became about what exactly was happening. Yet I kept proceeding through the six episodes provided for review (there will be ten total) precisely for that reason: because I wanted to straighten out all the tangles in my brain.
I haven’t read King’s novel — adapted here by Richard Price, co-writer of The Night Of — and at this point, I’m going out of my way to avoid the details of the book’s plot, so it’s impossible for me to say how faithful The Outsider is to its source material. But I can say that what starts off as a relatively standard, well-executed crime drama eventually veers into more supernatural, King-style territory, and the two tones don’t necessarily mix well.
In the first episode, the body of a young boy, Frankie Peterson, is found in a wooded area near a Georgia suburb. Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) begins to investigate and discovers evidence, via witnesses and security-camera footage, that implicates Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman), a husband, father, and Little League coach whom Ralph knows personally. Ralph arrests Terry, who swears he didn’t kill Frankie. He does more than swear: He has an alibi that proves he wasn’t anywhere near the scene of the crime when it happened. Ralph does some more digging and, lo and behold, finds proof that Terry was indeed out of town at a work conference on the day Frankie was murdered. But there’s also proof that he was very much in town, and was even spotted covered in blood, on the day Frankie died. What is going on here?
What is going on here becomes an even more sweeping, relevant question as The Outsider funnel-clouds into something larger and more ominous. Why does Terry’s younger daughter, now under the care of his angry wife and suddenly single mother, Glory (Julianne Nicholson), keep seeing visions of a man with blurry facial features at night? We learn that Ralph and his wife, Jeannie (Mare Winningham), lost their only son not long ago, but what were the circumstances of his death and how, if at all, do they relate to the Peterson case? Also, why, exactly, do the federal officers lurking around the edges of the action wear jackets that read GBI instead of FBI?
Those are just skims off the surface layer of The Outsider, which gets even more unruly once Cynthia Erivo enters the picture as Holly Gibney, a private investigator who’s on the autism spectrum and has some extrasensory-perception skills that guide her toward fresh intel. Holly is a recurring character in King’s fiction, and if Erivo weren’t portraying her, she might seem unbelievably silly. Thankfully, Erivo is playing her and imbues Holly’s robotic demeanor with a sense of welcome understatement that isn’t always in the arsenals of actors who play these kinds of characters. Erivo’s eyes aren’t always focused, but they’re definitely alive, windows into a brain where synapses are firing at all times. I may not always buy into the plot machinations that involve Holly or some of the decisions she has been scripted to make, but I believe she could exist as a person in the real world.
That’s true of the entire cast, which shouldn’t be a surprise given the names dropped in this review already. As the central figure consumed with guilt and obsessed with the Maitland case, Mendelsohn is superb. In every scene, no matter what emotions he’s actively navigating, he drops his head and shoulders in a way that conveys just how exhausted Ralph is: exhausted with grief, with overwork, and with trying to hold in his feelings. He does an awful lot while doing what looks like a little. That’s true of every supporting player around him, including, among others, Nicholson, Winningham, Bateman (who directed the first two episodes), and Bill Camp, who plays the Maitlands’ lawyer.
The problem with The Outsider is it begins as a relatively contained mystery that’s based in reality but gradually spins into a story with broader supernatural and mythical implications. The building sense of foreboding is effective at times. Conversations are frequently shot through doorframes and from long distances, implying that someone or something is watching what’s happening from afar. The gray hues and the production details, including sketches of the aforementioned Blurry Face Man, add a creepiness factor that keeps the viewer primed for something awful to happen.
But the show keeps adding so much information about other crimes that may be related to Frankie’s death, as well as side plots about other players in its large ensemble, that it becomes hard to keep everything straight. It feels like Price had a firm grip on this story at first but, as he added to it, it started to slip through his fingers like wet clay whipping around on a pottery wheel without firm hands to shape it. The Outsider maintains a very strong The Night Of (not shocking) and True Detective vibe throughout that suggests it has something deeper to say — but for the life of me, I can’t figure out what that is yet.
And yet I still want to see how The Outsider resolves itself, simply because I’m not sure how it fully can. As a consumer of stories, I am capable of believing in anything. Hell, a month ago on this very same premium-cable network, Watchmen had me believing that Robert Redford was president and that tiny squid can fall from the sky. But the bizarre is believable only when the storytelling behind it is so authoritative and in control that there are no cracks into which doubt or mistrust can seep. There are a lot of cracks in The Outsider, and not even the glue provided by great acting and skilled directing can completely fill them.
*A version of this article appears in the January 20, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!