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‘The Outsider’ Review: Welcome to Your New TV Obsession

Photo Credit: HBO

January (and most of February) is a messy, overcrowded time for television. Networks and streaming platforms flood the market with content — production premieres mixed with the requisite spin-offs and rushed final seasons all while playoff football, and the formulaic tentpole reality shows dominate the mainstream conversations. It’s a lot to process, and usually at the end of the day — nothing is that memorable.

HBO, however, seems to have a knack for taking this usually chaotic time to release programming that stops you dead in your tracks, and becomes your new television obsession. In 2014 and 2019 it was True Detective, in 2017 and 2019 it was Big Little Lies. Now, kicking off the new decade HBO has delivered a terrifying and intoxicating new thriller — the television adaptation of Stephen King’s The Outsider.

The Outsider takes place in the quasi-rural town of Cherokee City, Georgia where the body of a young boy named Frank Peterson is discovered. The body is mutilated in an almost inhuman manner, but traces of saliva and human bite marks leads tortured Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) hot on the trail of the killer. To the surprise of both audience and police alike there is overwhelming, and damning evidence pointing to beloved little league coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman — who directs the first two episodes) as the killer.

However, Maitland’s legal team finds incontrovertible filmed evidence putting him at an out-of-town teacher’s conference at exactly the time of the Peterson murder. Since this is based off a Stephen King novel, it’s not surprising (but it is terrifying) when imagine dark things start to manifest in town — namely a disfigured hooded man who we see outside the Maitland house as the police search it for clues, and Maitland’s youngest daughter is having nightmare/visions of an evil man/being in their home.

Jason Bateman, who also serves as a producer on the series, does an amazing job in not only giving a completely understated and honest performance (his scene with Mendelsohn in Episode 2, “Roanoke” is gutting) but setting the tone for the entire series through his direction of the first two episodes “Fish in a Barrel” and “Roanoke.” Bateman’s use of long shots, crane shots, and deep focus creates this bone-chilling, and eery vibe letting us know (or assume) that someone, or more than likely some thing is spying on the inhabitants of the series like a malevolent all-seeing eye. The use of a single frantic violin to score a climactic moment in “Roanoke” is masterful — creating an almost unbearable sense of tension.

In short — Bateman set the blueprint for the series to be a head-scratching mystery as well as a terrifying thriller. That’s not an easy task, and it’s a shame he’s not at the helm for the rest of the series.

The performances here are all strong, but we don’t get to see a lot out of Julianne Nicholson (Law & Order: Criminal Intent), Mare Winningham (Georgia), Paddy Considine (Hot Fuzz), or Hettienne Park (Hannibal) — and if you’re wondering, Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) is not in the episode. However, we do get to see a lot of Ben Mendelsohn — who gives an absolutely dynamite performance as the lead detective, Ralph. Tortured and heavily influenced by the death of his son to cancer, Ralph serves as both our hero and our audience proxy. We’ll be learning everything as he does as he is just as lost as we are. Also, from the trailers you know the hollowed out soul of the detective will be tested once the supernatural does (we think) come into play. Mendelsohn’s understated, stoic performance is perfect for this role.

The Outsider is the perfect follow up to both Netflix’s Mindhunter, and HBO’s Watchmen. While very different in content, the structure is the same — there’s breadcrumbs everywhere, but we have no idea where the story is taking us, and that mystery is very exciting. It’s a highly addictive series that is going to become mainstream destination television within a week or so.

The Outsider airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on HBO

Bill Bodkin
Bill Bodkinhttps://thepopbreak.com
Bill Bodkin is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break, and most importantly a husband, and father. Ol' Graybeard writes way too much about wrestling, jam bands, Asbury Park music, HBO shows, and can often be seen under his season DJ alias, DJ Father Christmas. He is the co-host of the Socially Distanced Podcast (w/Al Mannarino) which drops weekly on Apple, Google, Anchor & Spotify. He is the co-host of the monthly podcasts -- Anchored in Asbury, TV Break and Bill vs. The MCU.


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