“Do you see how strange this is?” says Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) of the crime he’s investigating, and in the first two episodes of The Outsider (which aired Jan. 12 on HBO), nothing makes much sense. A little boy is dead, viciously mauled and sodomized and murdered, and at first, the culprit is clear. There are numerous witnesses who put Little League coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) together with the child, who put the man at the scene of crime, who see Terry covered in blood afterward, it all crusted around his mouth, who watched him change his clothes and make a getaway. There’s video evidence of him, and fingerprints, and his teeth indentations match the bite marks found on the boy’s body. Everything seems to add up. And then, all of a sudden, it doesn’t—which takes us into the whirlingly macabre, ruthlessly tense, and transfixingly spooky mood of The Outsider.
SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST TWO EPISODES OF THE OUTSIDER FOLLOW
This adaptation of Stephen King’s novel starts as one thing: a straightforward crime drama, something akin to The Night Of, which was showrunner Richard Price’s previous project. The direction from Bateman adds to this in the first episode, “Fish in a Barrel,” in particular: Overhead shots of winding neighborhoods and the baseball diamond juxtaposed with a muted palette of browns and greens and grays, painting Cherokee City, Georgia, as just any other blandly recognizable suburb. Bad things don’t happen here. People are just trying to do their jobs, raise their families, live their lives. And the horrific slaughter of little Frank Peterson (Duncan E. Clark) is a tragedy, sure, but one that Ralph will solve. Ralph might be grieving the loss of his own son to cancer, and his marriage to wife Jeannie (Mare Winningham) might seem sort of on the rocks, but he’s a leader in this unit, to fellow cops like Yunis (Yul Vazquez) and Tomika (Hettienne Park). Terry will be brought to justice, and the Peterson family will grieve and move on, and the town will go back to normal, after a time.
So it’s impressive, then, how thoroughly the show swerves away from that narrative about small-town crime in its second episode. All of a sudden everything that clicked together in “Fish in a Barrel” doesn’t quite fit as well in “Roanoke.” There are fissures here now, cracks in the police’s understanding of the case. Terry and his wife Glory (Julianne Nicholson) insist that Terry wasn’t even in town the day Frankie died—he was at a work conference 70 miles away. Their lawyer, Howie Gold (Bill Camp, also from The Night Of), and his investigator, Alec (Jeremy Bobb), are determined to collect as much evidence as they can to counter the prosecution’s series of events. And there’s just weird shit going down all of a sudden, from the hooded figure seen lingering at crime scenes, whose face looks like half of it is collapsing, to the way the violence of this crime seems to reverberate outward, ensnaring more members of each family in its grasp, to the mysterious man Terry and Glory’s daughter Jessa (Scarlett Blum) is convinced she’s seeing in her bedroom at night. “Blood cries for blood,” a threatening prison inmate says to Terry, and The Outsider is satisfyingly methodical in how it sprawls that concept through its narrative.
I’ve seen the first six episodes of this 10-episode miniseries, and it basically scratched my itch for another first season of True Detective, another dimly lit show about big-time crimes in small-town America. But where The Outsider differs most primarily from Nic Pizzolatto’s show is that Price, who handles the bulk of writing duties, actually cares about developing every character here, not just the two main dudes. The show is almost ruthlessly efficient in how it provides enough backstory and attention for each person you meet, and that helps this town feel more real, their pain and confusion more palpable. Jeannie isn’t just Ralph’s also-mourning wife; she’s a social worker and case manager who cares deeply for her patients and whose matter-of-fact grip on reality is profoundly shaken. Supporting players like Vazquez’s Yunis and Paddy Considine’s strip club manager Claude Bolton are padded out, so you get a sense of how Yunis’s religious upbringing might affect his view of this crime, and how Claude’s rap sheet would shape how others view his latest attempt at reform. And Academy Award-nominated Cynthia Erivo, who joins the cast in upcoming episodes as investigator Holly Gibney, is a lightning bolt to this show’s rhythm. The show’s casting of her was an inspired move, and how grounded Erivo is as an actress helps the character serve as the show’s guide into spookier elements.
Aside from the exceptional ensemble cast, there’s a lot of atmosphere here. The miniseries is complemented immeasurably by the dense and foreboding score from Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, and the crew of directors (starting with Bateman and then including veteran TV director Andrew Bernstein, seasoned cinematographer Igor Martinovic, and Pajiba favorite Karyn Kusama of Jennifer’s Body and Destroyer) successfully balance the show between tightly composed glimpses into shadowy, ominous corners of our reality and broader presentations of wide-open spaces that imprint upon us the smallness of these people. As both a crime procedural and a supernatural thriller, The Outsider works, and most importantly, did I have nightmares? Yes, I had nightmares! That’s praise, I promise!
The Outsider premiered on HBO on January 12 and will continue through March 8.
Image sources (in order of posting): HBO Media Relations, HBO Media Relations, HBO Media Relations