The Outsider review: Stephen King’s spreading evil

King’s 2018 supernatural small-town murder mystery, with a hat tip to H.P. Lovecraft’s story of the same name, has been turned into a ten-part series by Richard Price, with local parent/detective Ben Mendelsohn allying with Cynthia Erivo’s neuroatypical sleuth to investigate the impossible. Kim Newman takes an early look, then keeps going.

Updated: 22 December 2020

By Kim Newman

Ben Mendelsohn and Mare Winningham in The Outsider Series 1 (2020)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ The Outsider is now available to stream from Sky Atlantic in the UK, and HBO in the US.

First look: episodes 1 and 2

A mood of unease and shifting ground is established in the opening act of the first episode of HBO/Sky Atlantic’s The Outsider, written by Richard Price from a 2018 novel by Stephen King – which, in the bizarro world of high-end TV scores Price a ‘created by’ credit.

Oklahoma small-town detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn), who is grieving for a recently dead son, investigates a murder he can’t help but take personally. High-school kid Frankie Peterson has been lured into a white van and savagely slain. In a terse exchange about teeth-marks on the corpse, Anderson asks “Animal?” and the forensics tech responds simply (and horrifically) “No.”

Witness accounts confirm fingerprint evidence that proves the boy was abducted and killed by a trusted adult, Little League coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman). Anderson interviews an array of witnesses – including a little girl, an old lady and the manager of a local strip club (an oddly cast Paddy Considine) – and interchanges segue into flashbacks featuring a sinister, calmly self-incriminating Maitland who looks exactly like (but does not otherwise resemble) the devout family man Anderson arrests in public, slapping the cuffs on him in the middle of a baseball game.

A politically ambitious DA sees a slam-dunk case, but Maitland’s lawyer Howie Salomon (Bill Camp) produces evidence that the teacher was at a conference 60 miles from the crime scene at the time of the murder, asking a question about why the school board has banned Slaughterhouse-Five. Maitland is at once irrefutably guilty and undeniably innocent, but the fact of his arrest smashes his home life almost as definitively as Frankie’s murder wrecks his family.

Ben Mendelsohn as Ralph Anderson in The Outsider

In the first two episodes – all that were available for preview – we only get hints of Stephen King-type happenings, notably a hooded misshapen figure loitering at the fringes of crowds. Richard Price-type characters (cops, lawyers, suspects, lowlifes) contemplate Maitland’s seeming bilocation and deem this supernatural wrongness an affront to sanity… though the entirely natural brutality of the murder, committed by an apparent pillar of the community, is as much terror as they can cope with, even before bringing in the disappearance of the Roanoke colonists and intimations of the demonic. King is certainly referencing H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Outsider, but is also a fan of the short-lived 1968-99 private eye TV series of the same name; to him, the title signals adherence both to cosmic horror and disenchanted neo-noir, a seam he has worked at least since the small-town serial killer cop segment of The Dead Zone (1979).

After a fallow spell, King has re-emerged as a prime source for TV and film horrors, to the point that his overlapping stories cover more ground than the Marvel Cinematic Universe (there’s even a whole series about the extended King universe, Hulu’s Castle Rock). The ‘coming this season’ trail at the end of episode two promises Anderson’s worldview will be further challenged by a team-up with Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), a neuroatypical sleuth carried over from King’s 2014 novel Mr Mercedes (Justine Lupe plays her in the David E. Kelley TV series spun off from that).

So many tropes of current TV, as seen in Scandi-noirs and post-modern American crime drama (True Detective, Sharp Objects), date back to King that there’s a risk direct adaptations seem like collages of themes, characters and moods that have become standardised. Only King would insert a lengthy Little League baseball anecdote – Bateman’s acting highlight in episode two – as setup for a major plot reversal; but we’ve seen a lot of glum policemen traipse through dark woods and negotiate soap opera home lives in pursuit of trickster serial killers with paranormal activities.

Bateman also directs the first two episodes, and has a knack for juggling times and moods without causing confusion – maybe a few foreshadowings are too blatant, though that might be a plot-point, as the detectives wonder whether they’re being led into traps by the killer. Mendelsohn, one of the best and most versatile utility actors of the current generation, has a rare low-key straight leading role, surrounded by others who get to be stranger than him. It’s early days, but the first two episodes definitely sink in the hook…

Final reaction: series 1

Spoiler alert!

The arrival of Erivo’s Holly Gibney in episode three of The Outsider significantly changes the mood and tone of the serial, culminating in an on-the-nose statement about the supernatural villain (“an outsider knows an outsider”) that positions the psychic if troubled sleuth as a force of light equivalent to the shapeshifting serial killer.

The casting of Considine makes more sense as his initially incidental character comes to the fore in later episodes – with the actor doing secondary duty as a new incarnation of the monster, rising to the occasion when the shapeshifting demon is trapped with the posse of monster hunters and has to talk with them rather than just rip them up. In later episodes, as Price calls in Dennis Lehane for script assist, there is a dancing-around the supernatural which is King’s purview but fresh territory for these policier noir specialists, and maybe the series doesn’t quite bare its fangs to follow through on the cosmic threat implicit in the mere existence of the philosophically challenging culprit at the end of the whodunit.

Cynthia Erivo as Holly Gibney

Just as a lot of TV cops prefigure Mendelsohn’s low-key, angst-ridden Detective Anderson, there have been quite a few quirky-to-the-point-of-clinical-insanity puzzle-solving geniuses on the Sherlock Holmes model in television lately – with Hugh Laurie’s House even getting in the game before Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller did actual Holmeses. Erivo’s Holly is engagingly odd, but plainly set to be the ‘Agent Cooper’ of this franchise-in-the-making… stress-tested by this case, but awake to the possibility that there are other monsters out there for possible future seasons.

The other significant character who emerges later in the serial is Anderson’s unstable colleague Jack Hoskins (Marc Menchaca), pulled off his hunting trip when Anderson has to take officially-mandated leave in the wake of a traumatic incident, and co-opted by the monster as his equivalent of Dracula’s minion Renfield. That’s an archetype King has played with previously in several characters (most obviously ‘Mr Straker’ in Salem’s Lot, once played to perfection by James Mason).

It’s a measure of the show’s consistent tone – breathless, numbed, slightly underplayed, with people reacting believably to evidence that accumulates suggesting the impossible can’t be ruled out – that a whispery ghost relationship develops between Holly and Hoskins, who arrive late but become mirror antagonists even to the extent of teasing that she’s worried she’s prone to the stigmata (a severely blotchy neck) which marks Hoskins as the monster’s creature.

Originally published: 18 March 2020