The Outsider

Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo in 'The Outsider.'
Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo in 'The Outsider.'
Photo: Showmax

OUR RATING

4/5 Stars

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

When a young boy is found brutally murdered in a small town, the local police - led by Ralph Anderson, a veteran cop whose own child died just the year before – believe they have found more than enough evidence to go after the man they're certain is responsible for this horrific crime: school coach and pillar of the community, Terry Maitland. After bringing Maitland in, however, it quickly starts to become clear that things are nowhere near as simple as they thought when a mountain of contradictory evidence starts pouring in that doesn't just exonerate Maitland but points to him being in opposite parts of the country at the same time.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

Based on the best-selling novel by Stephen King (Is there any other kind?), The Outsider is, in many respects, a quintessential King story. Starting with the horrific death of a child and leading up, inevitably, to a motley group of regular folks coming together to battle a purely malevolent entity, intent on shattering the hard-won peace of their small town (presumably in Maine). It's all very Stephen King 101. More than that, if that description rings a particularly loud bell, it's because the recently readapted It (Parts I and II) can be summarised in exactly the same way.

And yet, The Outsider is not just another Stephen King adaptation. Whether the novel comes across this way or not (I haven't read it), it's actually something of a twist on some of the oldest Stephen King tropes. At least for a good portion of its run.

Clearly, taking a leaf out of the True Detective playbook, this is much more of a slow-burning, character-driven crime drama with a delicious mystery at its centre, than an out-and-out horror series. Even its supernatural elements are kept at bay for about as long as possible, and when they do arrive, they come with a growing sense of tension and unease, quite different from the sometimes off-the-wall horror thrills of some of King's best-loved works. 

Developed for the screen by Richard Price, the veteran screenwriter of films such as The Color of Money and Ransom, who later refocused his career on premium television (The Wire, The Deuce, and The Night Of), The Outsider is clearly influenced as much by Price's own work as it is by the novel's author. As much as it may scream Stephen King, it just as loudly screams post-Sopranos HBO. 

While that's generally a good thing, it does suffer from the same problem as many serialised, rather than episodic, television series: it's just a bit too long. Around two episodes too long, to be exact. Not so much from the first half of the series that uses its slow pace to build up both its characters and its mystery, but it just takes too long to go from the (slightly "meh") revelation of the malignant force behind that central mystery and the somewhat pat resolution. And, yeah, no spoilers, but of course the ending is a bit disappointing: that's as much a King trademark as anything else.

It says a lot about just how great a job Price and his team of writers and directors have done that I didn't lose patience with the whole thing a lot earlier. This crack creative team includes, incidentally, acclaimed crime novelist, Dennis Lehane, pitching in to script a couple of episodes, and Jason Bateman (here also as co-star and executive producer) absolutely killing it behind the camera for the show's first – and best – couple of episodes.

Because let's not kid: by all rights, this particular story shouldn't need more than one or two episodes to be satisfyingly and thoroughly told. Three at most, if they really wanted to get into the heads of most of the supporting characters. Because – and it's hard not to notice this – this is exactly the sort of premise that was the bread and butter of the monster-of-the-week episodes of The X-Files. King, after all, was demonstrably a major influence on the weekly adventures of Mulder and Scully. Hell, he even wrote an episode of that show.

And it's not just the premise that is so obviously similar to a generic, 40-minute-long episode of The X-Files. Not only does the way the mystery plays out feel incredibly familiar, we even have a Mulder/Scully dynamic going there for a bit when our two main characters (Ben Mendelsohn's Detective Ralph Anderson and Cynthia Erivo's PI and recurring King character, Holly Gibney) finally get together to solve the case.   

You can quite easily make the case that this is a textbook example of all that is wrong with modern TV; that for all the undeniable quality in everything, from acting to production values, it now takes 10 hours to tell the same story that they used to be able to tell in less than one. And I confess, I genuinely do feel this way at times with even the best modern "premium TV". This golden age of TV is great and all but, honestly, sometimes it just feels like most of these shows could do with a network-sized kick in the ass from time to time.

With all this working against it, then, just how is it that The Outsider had me so gripped for almost all of its entire 10-hour runtime? I adore The X-Files, but even that show often struggled to hold my attention with many of its paint-by-number episodes, and those were all of 45 minutes long!

Part of it is, undeniably, that the individual components are really very strong. The cast is uniformly great with the two leads, in particular, really bringing their considerable A-game to the proceedings. Mendelssohn trades his recent juicy villain roles for a much quieter, but no less compelling, turn as a good cop quietly wrestling with a recent tragedy and his even more recent mistakes, even as his guarded but rational worldview comes crashing down all around him. Erivo, meanwhile, once again proves herself to be one of the best new(ish) actors around as his socially awkward, supernaturally gifted counterpart.

There's also little to complain about the production values, the cinematography, the direction, or the writing. The latter is particularly noteworthy even if just for remembering to inject some humour and warmth into otherwise very grim proceedings. The music too is also noteworthy and plays a major part in making the show as atmospheric as it is. And, yeah, I enjoy a good mystery, and even if I've seen enough of The X-Files to know where it was probably going, The Outsider still had a good mystery at its core for at least the first half – and plenty of nail-biting thriller set pieces to take its place later on.

The sheer quality of the show is definitely part of it, to be sure, but I have abandoned even better shows after just a few episodes. I may have needed to watch the whole series for review purposes, but I would gladly have followed it through to the end, even just as a casual viewer. Why, though?

I think it comes down to two crucial factors that took all that just top-notch filmmaking quality and made it actually matter. First, if you want me to invest hours of my time in a story, no matter how well told or skilfully executed, you damn well better make sure I actually care about the characters – and The Outsider does precisely that. It has quite a large cast of characters, but they are all expansively drawn, fully-rounded people that may not always earn your sympathy, but always demand your attention. 

Secondly, the extended runtime gives the show plenty of space to dig into a number of themes and, as befits an X-Files pastiche, none more so than the idea of scepticism and belief; of taking that final step in that famous Sherlock Holmes quote: "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth." Or, as us older millennials (and gen Xers too, no doubt) may recognise it: Dana Scully syndrome.  

The Outsider is a very good, if sometimes flawed, show but however much we may come for the unnerving atmosphere, pulse-pounding thrills, and baffling mystery (us horror fans are a strange lot), we undoubtedly stay for the recognisable humanity that underlines it all. It even makes up for the lacklustre, unsatisfying resolution to the main plot.

That said, there is a mid-credit scene (Damn you, Marvel!) that suggests there might be more to come and I sincerely hope not. However much I may want to spend more time with these characters, there's just no way that The Outsider won't end up outstaying its welcome by going past the events of the book, even with just one more season. It's not a perfect ending, but it is an ending, and often that's more than enough.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:

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