Sometimes I wonder how my impression of Stephen King’s writing might have been shaped if the entertainment industry been better at adapting his stuff when I was growing up. Horror movies turned me off so much in the 1980s that I never gave it a chance, but these days it’s really getting its hooks in. HBO’s miniseries The Outsider (2020), while not a particularly deep show, is a rich, confidently executed one with a powerful, dark magnetism.
In the small town of Cherokee City, Georgia, the community is shocked by the murder and mutilation of a young boy. The culprit looks like a slam dunk: Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman), a local Little League coach whose guilt seems incontrovertible, thanks to multiple eyewitness testimonies, surveillance footage, and copious DNA evidence. Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) is so convinced of Terry’s guilt, he angrily arrests Terry in full view of his team, family, and the whole town. The only problem: contradictory evidence turns up proving Maitland was at an out-of-town conference at the time of the murder. Unfortunately, irreparable damage is done to Maitland’s entire family before he can be exonerated, but Ralph – guilt-ridden for his role in ostracizing the Maitlands – labors to undercover what really happened. With the assistance of a small team of interested locals, Ralph ends up partnering with quirky Chicago PI Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), whose inhuman memory and extrasensory perception makes her particularly open-minded to the existence of the supernatural. Ralph, a rational law-and-order man who refuses to accept that there isn’t a logical, mundane explanation for what’s going on, is skeptical when Holly comes back with a theory: that Maitland was infected by a mysterious entity that assumed his identity to commit the crime…and that this boogeyman has done it before, to multiple victims.
The Outsider is an engrossing, extremely well produced tale of psychological horror. While it may be an episode or two overlong – late in the run, as the team gets closer to solving the case, it slows down and starts to feel demystified – it’s mostly a smooth, successful creeper that ramps with chilling intensity. Stellar work from Bateman and Mendelsohn launches the series, but it’s Erivo who takes over, a unique, memorably played character whose social awkwardness proves thematic; she’s an engaging Mulder to Mendelsohn’s haunted, rational Scully. A first-rate supporting roster fleshes out the ensemble, including Jeremy Bobb, Bill Camp, Paddy Considine, Julianne Nicholson, Yul Vazquez, and Mare Winningham, but special mention goes out to Marc Menchaca, who delivers an impressive performance in a key role as Ralph’s troubled police colleague Jack Hoskins. The build-up is, perhaps, more successful than the wind-down, but the explosive climax is satisfying, so much so that Ralph’s offhand comment to Holly suggesting they team up on future cases definitely met with my approval.