Stephen King is one of the most prolific and popular American novelists of the last century. He has written over 60 novels, 200 short stories, and countless essays and musings. He has sold over 300 million books in his long career. His writings have been adapted into countless movies and television series, most of them poorly. His stories are notoriously difficult to film. I've become a pretty big fan of the man over the last few years and I think part of the reason why his cinematic adaptations rarely work is that they tend to focus on his plots which are often filled with strange incidents, bizarre monsters, and the supernatural. But while his books regularly feature demonic clowns, possessed cars, and resurrected cats what makes King's writings so interesting, so universal, what keeps millions of people hanging on his every word is not the horror but humanity. King builds really interesting worlds in which his books live and develops real, lived-in characters. I sometimes think he spends a little too much time providing details of his character's lives, but without a doubt that is what elevates his stories over the countless imitators.
When you make a television series or a movie that focuses on the monsters and not the people, you are neglecting what makes a Stephen King story so interesting. It is no wonder then that some of the best adaptations of his work have been the ones based on his non-supernatural stories (Shawshank Redemption, Misery, Stand By Me, Dolores Claiborne). And the ones that do feature something unnatural keep the focus on the mood, the setting, and the characters (The Shining, Carrie, The Mist, The Dead Zone).
The Outsider, the new series from HBO which is based upon King's 2018 book of the same name, mostly gets it right. It is beautifully shot, perfectly cast, well-acted, generally engaging, but sometimes a bit slow, probably could have been trimmed from ten episodes to eight, and gets worse the more it focuses on the killer and loses track of its characters.
The body of a young boy, Frank Peterson, is found abused and mutilated in the woods in a small Georgia town. Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) works with Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Yunis Sablo (Yul Vasquez) to solve the case. Evidence begins to point towards Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman, who also directed two episodes). It seems impossible that he would do such a thing as he is well-liked in the community and coaches the little league baseball team. Yet there are eyewitnesses who saw him with the boy the day of the murders, and others who saw him covered in blood afterward. Cameras verify much of their testimony. There are his fingerprints all over the van used to abduct the boy and more at the crime scene. There are also DNA matches to Terry all over the boy's corpse.
It seems like a slam dunk case. So much so that Det. Anderson decides to publically arrest Terry at the little league game he is coaching. The District Attorney (Michael Esper) goes on TV to proclaim the case all but solved. But there are problems. Terry says he was out of town, in Cap City at the time of the murder. He has witnesses to collaborate his story. He attended a conference with several of his fellow teachers, he left fingerprints at the hotel gift shop, and he was caught on local access television at the time the boy was being murdered.
A man can't be in the same place at the same time. So how could Terry have been in Cap City at the same time he was leaving so much physical evidence at the crime scene? Seeing that this is based upon a Stephen King novel, you'll have probably already guessed the answer is weird and supernatural.
After a tragic event, Det. Anderson teams up with Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), a quirky private investigator to look into other suspects. Gibney is a character Stephen King has written about in three other novels and one short story. She was introduced in Mr. Mercedes as a shy, put-upon middle-aged white woman who suffers from OCD and is clearly on the autism spectrum. By the end of the third book in that trilogy, she has come out of her shell due to the help of the main protagonist of those books, Bill Hodges, and proven to be a reliable, capable investigator. The series, for obvious reasons, drops all of that back story and turns her into a young, black savant who can remember the lyrics to every pop song of the last several decades, the make and model of every car every built, the height of any building she sees, etc. But then it doesn't do anything with those abilities. It just a way to make her special, or a freak depending on who is looking at her. They don't help her with the investigation and they seem to be regularly dropped when the writers need her to be normal.
Holly uncovers some similar murders which make her believe there may be a supernatural force involved. Det. Anderson, used to only dealing in facts and evidence, is skeptical. The heart of the story lies in the way he and others involved in the investigation, slowly come to accept the unacceptable, to believe the unbelievable. Det. Anderson is connected to the case not only because he is the lead detective but because his young son died some years previous and the death of Frank Peterson reminds him of his own loss. Which is the other theme of the series, how grief stays with you. The death of a loved one, especially your own child at a young age becomes part of who you are. There's no turning back from that.
Following that theme, the series spends a great deal of time with Glory Maitland (Julianne Nicholson), Terry's wife, and how she copes with her husband being accused of such terrible crimes and how it ruins her standing in the town and her life. It is a show soaked in grief, anger, and sorrow.
I hesitate to go further into the plot as part of the joys of the series is seeing how things unfold. I will say that isn't always satisfying. The pacing from episode to episode, scene to scene, ranges wildly from torturously slow to furiously action packed which left me feeling a bit whiplashed at times. The farther it gets into solving the mystery the less interesting it became. This is a problem with many mysteries: the solution is rarely as satisfying as the build-up. This is especially true with how this mystery moves from realistic to the supernatural. It isn't bad so much as it is disappointing. This is also a problem I had with the novel. It could have been so much better and wound up being just pretty good.
The direction, cinematography, and mood of the series is unilaterally excellent. The casting is brilliant. I especially loved how so many of the actors were not movie-star beautiful, but character-actor interesting. That many of the main characters are bald or overweight or plain gives the series a feeling of authenticity even as the story gets farther and farther out there. That all of the actors are terrific makes it all the better.
In the end, The Outsider is an interesting mystery with superb production values telling a story that doesn't completely work. If you are a Stephen King fan, this is a must-see. Otherwise, it is worth watching, but perhaps not necessary. Extras include six making-of featurettes and something called "Inside Episodes" in which the cast and crew explore each of the episodes.