Review: HBO’s ‘The Outsider’ is slow and predictable, but curiously watchable

Rating: 3 out of 3.

“Most of what makes ‘The Outsider’ watchable is its excellent cast”

Some spoilers for episodes one and two of The Outsider.

HBO have a stellar track record for producing dark and twisty dramas, whether it’s True Detective (2014) or the excellent adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects (2018). Their latest is Stephen King’s The Outsider, which is closer to True Detective with its blend of small-town drama and supernatural mystery. The Outsider isn’t as good as those mentioned above. It’s rough around the edges and not original, but it’s also curiously watchable, and sometimes that’s enough. Is it worth your time? That depends on how much you have. Among the tired mystery tropes, one of the first things you’ll notice is the slow pace. 

Even in its first two episodes, The Outsider feels like it’s stretching its script, which isn’t the best start to a ten-episode mystery. There’s nothing new here to anybody whose seen a handful of small-town murder shows. It opens like a police procedural with murky visuals following a witness on their dog walk only to stumble upon the mutilated body of an eleven-year-old boy, Frankie Peterson (Duncan E. Clarke). Cue the introduction of troubled detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) who has a muffled drawl and sad eyes. The reason behind those sad eyes aren’t a surprise either. He immediately suspects family man – a shock to everybody but the audience – Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman, excelling once again in a darker role) and humiliates him in front of the town by making a sudden arrest. 

Bateman directs the first two episodes and they’re disappointingly ordinary when compared with the best HBO offerings. It’s not a huge issue, but if you put The Outsider next to True Detective or Sharp Objects the cinematography is night and day. Upon first glance, the show seems stuffed with weird camera angles, out-of-frame subjects and a general cheapness to its visuals. There’s an optional flipside to this. The camera is often positioned close to the ground, looking up at its subject, and usually from a distance. There’s also frequent obstruction between us and the characters, whether it’s the separation of a window, reflection or prison bars. My initial impression was that this was simply uninteresting cinematography, but the more I noticed it the more I believed it was tied to the show’s themes of isolation and perception. If that’s the case, then it’s effective. If nothing else, having weird shots gives the show a rough-and-ready grittiness. This could entirely be misreading bad cinematography, but it was too obvious to be unintentional.

When Ralph makes the arrest, it isn’t without evidence. Terry’s fingerprints are all over the crime scene and the boy, not to mention he’s witnessed leaving the woods with a blood-stained mouth, as if he’s just eaten a child. He’s seen later again at a bar changing out of his bloody clothes. He puts it down to a nosebleed, which local bar man Claude (Paddy Considine) finds difficult to believe. After all, how do you get a nosebleed on the back of your shirt? Guilty. Case closed. Well, not quite. 

Terry pleads his innocence and is calm in custody as he waits for his lawyer, Howard Salomon (Bill Camp). It’s not long before we learn why Terry is so insistent that he didn’t murder the boy. There’s footage of him attending a teacher conference in another town at the time of Peterson’s death. How could he be in two places at once? And that’s the hook. It suggests a doppelganger at work, but this is Stephen King so don’t rule out time travel and portal hopping demons. In these early episodes, that’s as supernatural as the show gets, along with a nightmarish hooded figure who lurks – amusingly – in the background of the crime scenes. Don’t tell anyone else, but I reckon he’s The Outsider. He’s been put there to keep the audience interested in a show that sticks too closely to predictable formulae. 

Most of what makes The Outsider watchable is its excellent cast, primarily Mendelsohn and Bateman. Pitting them against each other is undeniably compelling, even if the story surrounding them isn’t anything to get excited about. True Detective was a slow burn, but that show immediately had an interesting narrative framework with its past and present, and unpicked the mind of its characters from the very start. Two episodes into The Outsider and none of the characters stand out. They’re all standard Stephen King fare – you’ve got the detective, the baseball guy, a shady lawyer, a gun-crazy officer, troubled teens and, of course, somebody from out of town. To compensate for the familiarity, The Outsider needed to do something different, whether visually or narratively, but it doesn’t. It’s a by-the-numbers small-town murder investigation. If any character leaves an impression, it’s Ralph, and it’s purely because Mendelsohn is always a captivating presence. 

The Outsider suffers from a lack of imagination, but there’s a reason so many murder mysteries get made and it’s because people are curious. Whether the idea of two Jason Bateman’s is enough to keep you glued for ten episodes is down to the individual, but I’d be lying if I wasn’t a little interested to see what happens next. Mostly, I want to know the deal behind the hooded bogeyman, and that’s why they put him there.

Director: Jason Bateman

Producers: Jason Bateman, Jack Bender, Marty Bowen, Michael Costigan, Ben Mendelsohn

Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Jason Bateman, Julianne Nicholson, Cynthia Erivo

Release Date: 2020

Available on: HBO / Sky Atlantic