Roush Review: HBO's 'The Outsider' Is Deluxe Stephen King

Matt Roush
Review HBO

I confess. I’m a sucker for a good Stephen King story, and The Outsider is one of his better recent efforts. This is because the 2018 novel, and writer Richard Price’s excellent adaptation for HBO, follow one of the horror master’s cardinal rules: Make you care first, the better to scare you later.

Sunday's two-hour opener, directed by and starring Jason Bateman (Ozark), is an instantly riveting exercise in emotional suspense, trapping a nice-guy small-town coach in a Hitchcockian “wrong man” nightmare. Bateman’s affable everyman charm makes the dilemma of Terry Maitland even more disturbing when he is arrested, very publicly, for the horrific murder of a young boy. Eyewitness, forensic and video evidence place him at the scene. But equally convincing details back up his solid alibi that he was 70 miles away at the time.

HBO

If you can’t believe your eyes, you must be in Stephen King territory. Which creates a problem for Detective Ralph Anderson (Bloodline’s Ben Mendelsohn, a first-rate brooder), who grouses, “I have no tolerance for the unexplainable.” It becomes his burden to reconcile these conflicting facts and assuage his own guilt for rushing to judgment when the case takes a tragic turn.

Enter (in the Jan. 19 episode) a quirky private investigator to follow the leads to their fantastic and even terrifying conclusion. Rising star Cynthia Erivo (Harriet, the upcoming Genius: Aretha) is a terrific foil to the pragmatic, sorrowful Ralph as crafty, intuitive and socially awkward Holly Gibney, a character introduced in King’s Mr. Mercedes trilogy. Her obsessive Asperger’s-like personality (“Sometimes my brain skips a step”) makes her perfectly suited to find bizarre connections with similar cases of inexplicable injustice.

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Holly’s deductions, which evoke ancient myths and boogeyman legends, are hard for Ralph to accept, but even he can’t ignore the nighttime visitations by a hooded ghoul warning him, Holly and others to back off, or else.

The outstanding cast features Mare Winningham, Bill Camp, Julianne Nicholson and Peaky Blinders’ Paddy Considine in key roles. In every way, The Outsider is deluxe King, befitting a tall tale that gains imaginative power by slowly weaving its spooky and supernatural elements into a gripping detective story. It all feels so real—until it doesn’t.

The Outsider, Series Premiere, Sunday, January 12, 9/8c, HBO