Stephen King‘s 2018 novel, The Outsider is not one I had considered would work as an HBO Original Series. The 561-page crime thriller is a book that works at a quick pace. It is a cliche to call something, a “page-turner,” but The Outsider is just that.
The book opens with a tantalizing hook–a young boy found brutally murdered and all evidence points towards one person, Terry Maitland, a local English teacher and little league baseball coach.
As a reader, the first third of the novel overwhelms you with this absolute iron shut case. It’s almost a freight train of energy, leaving you with doubt and speculation because things can’t be as simple as they seem.
Fish in a Barrel and Roanoke
Jason Bateman plays the previously mentioned Terry Maitland (while also sharing directing duties for the first two episodes) in a stroke of good fortune. Stephen King’s stories are largely comprised of the “every-man” archetype. These aren’t characters who feel that out-of-the-ordinary. Rather, they feel like small-town American neighbors.
Bateman perfectly captures that feel. His seemingly, laid-back, and not overly indulgent style of acting sneaks up on you dramatically. Cast opposite him is Ben Mendelsohn, who brings a somber and quiet intensity to his character of Agent Ralph Anderson.
Mendelsohn doesn’t get a lot of praise but whenever he pops up in something he reminds you of the force he can be on screen. Anderson, like many in the town, have a relationship with Terry, had a child coached by him and leads the investigation against him.
We see flashbacks to eyewitness accounts of a bloodthirsty Terry (Bateman is really creepy in these scenes) leaving us no doubts that he did what Anderson believes he did.
But the show does a good job of finding evidence to make you doubt the case’s validity. A man stalks in the shadows and camera footage has Terry in two places at once. Could he have done it?
Directing and Storytelling
Well, I read the book so I’m not going to tell you what the results are. But I will say that an avid King reader, it was interesting to see one of his stories placed under the HBO True Detective-style filter.
Slow push-ins, shallow depths of field shots, and high production value that is self-serious but richly compliments King’s work. We get to experience all of that, and all under Bateman’s directorial guidance. He creates a moody atmosphere that is able to survive even the episodes’ slowest moments.
The hooks and twists within the first two episodes leave a world of possibilities for the characters’ future. I watched the premiere with a friend who hadn’t read the book, but he was quickly hooked and even came up with possible theories surrounding the murder. I wonder if the series already tipped its hand a few too many times to keep intrigue alive through the series. That remains to be seen with the proceeding episodes.
If I had a criticism of the opening it would be the show could have been trimmed a little bit to keep things moving. There were some points in the second episode where it felt like we didn’t hit the brakes but tapped them a little too hard.
Where Do We Go From Here?
This does lead to some concerns I have for the show going forward.
This is the first two episodes of a 10-episode season. So far, the show has been faithful to the novel but these first two episodes also cover the first 250 pages of a 560-page novel. Unless the next 300 pages unfold at a snail’s pace, some changes are coming.
Quite frankly that excites me, far more than the alternative of spreading 300 pages across eight hours of somber television.
I like The Outsider. As a novel, it is an addicting read and at times an emotional piece of loss and grief. But, I think it runs out of steam towards the end and climaxes a bit too soon. My favorite portions of the novel have mostly unfolded in the show already so I’m sure as a reader I’ll be surprised going forward as my friend is right now.
All in all, it’s a good premiere. I don’t think it’s going to blow people away the way Watchmen’s first episode did, but it does what the beginning of the novel did well–gives an intriguing premise to get you hooked on what comes next.
There is some terrific filmmaking and atmosphere. The acting is exceptional from Bateman and Mendelsohn. And there are some emotional beats that really sneak up on you. It will remind viewers of True Detective and The Night Of, and while it’s not as good as those two series, if The Outsider continues operating the way it is then it bodes well for the show going forward.