Doppelgängers lock eyes with their mirrored protagonists as representations of suppression, whether that be of unbridled id or an unstable identity. Doubles, in Dostoyevsky stories and Jordan Peele projects, confront us with the uncanny proof that we are not unique and infuse us with doubt. If we’re not the only us, then what exactly are we supposed to believe? The Outsider—which sees writer Richard Price adapting Stephen King’s exciting novel (one of his recent best, in my eyes)—becomes another variation on this theme for HBO, presenting a procedural where alibis, accusations, and evidence enter the realm of unreality. But with jurisprudence being the most interesting boogeyman haunting its stellar cast, The Outsider’s arm’s length, obtuse, and homely take on the supernatural crime genre squanders plenty on its way to a mediocre mistrial.
The first six episodes of the ten-episode HBO drama, which the company assured me is NOT a miniseries, concern a boy in a small southern town who is viciously murdered, his corpse mutilated and defiled. Only a monster could do such a thing. And a damning amount of evidence—witnesses, surveillance footage, physical residue—points to little league coach, teacher, and all-around nice guy Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman). It’s like he wanted to get caught. But it’s impossible. He literally couldn’t have committed the crime, which Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) finds out only after making the arrest in the flashiest, most statement-making way possible. As the fallout from the case rains down upon the townspeople, drowning the family of the murdered boy and Terry’s wife Glory (Julianne Nicholson) under a torrent of sorrow and social stigma, Anderson’s new case is figuring out how one person could be in two places at once.
The premise contains all the frustrating fun of a seemingly unsolvable Sherlock Holmes case, with the added thematic heft of wrongful accusation and otherworldly doppelgängers. It’s “he said, she said” unraveling the hardest of proof, which is gutwrenching to watch unfold—especially in a climate where true crime has trained us to look for the DNA, the time stamps, the shreds of hope. The source novel’s tight tangle of evidentiary webbing makes the mystery a rewarding one to pursue along with Anderson. However, when Price and his directors begin to liberate the story from its shoe-leather groundedness, it quickly loses its gripping tension. The mystery begins to fan outward, revealing loose threads that require the expertise of private eye Holly (Cynthia Erivo) to link together, but it fails to become compelling even with Erivo’s solid performance.
Because the storytelling—precise only when it wants to be—is often intentionally opaque, chopping up timelines and ending acts (even entire episodes) on meaningless beats, neither Holly nor Anderson’s investigation can pick up steam. The effect is jarring rather than unsettling, especially since much of the show’s horror is a growing dread developed methodically, as each dedicated, beat-by-beat procedural element is proved fruitless. Episodes with legitimately disturbing imagery, like children attentively listening to empty rooms in the middle of the night or the monstrous facelessness lurking behind a hoodie, finish with scenes that end up having no relevance. The episodic arcs themselves can end arbitrarily and abruptly, hitting the opening or end credits with a laughable anticlimax.
The aesthetic also plays a role in this obfuscation. Important plot points can slip through the narrative cracks—not apparent until a full episode later (even to someone who’s read the book and knows where the story is headed)—or fall into the endless darkness in which the show is shot. Some of its visual elements aren’t especially bad, just ineffective. Slow-motion, used best in single sequence of bloody violence, erects a barrier of tempo between us and the characters. Rather than experiencing their pain more intensely, lingering in it slowly, the slo-mo exacerbates the show’s aloofness.
A heightened tug-of-war between intimacy and distance—settling its camera in the beds its characters sleep in, then lingering outside in the doorways only to glimpse its obscured subjects through gaps in the environmental clutter—dominates the first Bateman-directed episodes. These shot choices are certainly distancing, but more often in a squinting, “What the hell’s going on over there?” sense (again reinforced by the show’s dim lighting) than a “lonely isolation” sense. While it may seem strange that a series about doppelgängers wants it, the one thing you don’t feel throughout the series is alone.
Despite its love of long shots, The Outsider makes a wonderful cast bumble their way through the supernatural case. Even if they’re somewhat hidden by the blocking, each scene brings out a new character actor to convincingly ply their craft. The lawyer of the accused (Bill Camp); the entangled owner of the strip club (Paddy Considine); the detective’s loving-yet-exhausted wife (Mare Winningham); the inconsistently dickish cop (Marc Menchaca): the town is chockablock with classic small-town King characters, operating at top levels. In fact, beyond Bateman (who plays the put-upon suspect with overwrought martyrdom), all the acting is excellent: Mendelsohn’s rumpled charm weathers all manner of mishap and personal failing, Nicholson’s seething intensity is never overplayed, and Erivo continues to show off new sides with her fastidious role.
As mysticism arises over the course of the season—like in a schlocky Conjuring-verse scene where a detective interviews an older person of color that clues them into what’s really going on in the world—it’s like the show’s own evil twin has taken its place. There’s still an element of campy fun, but when much of the show’s pleasures come from the aggravating stalemate between undeniable, yet opposing, sets of evidence (or sets of realities), the silliness undermines its potency. We can either squirm, seeing the wrongfully accused damned and their families devastated, or we can grin at the logical leaps and oogidy-boogidy mythology. King has never been the best at juggling his tones, and Price’s adaptation doesn’t set itself apart. When confronted with its own worst impulses, The Outsider embraces rather than confronts the silly monster tale lurking within.
The Outsider premieres Sunday, January 12th on HBO
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
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