The Outsider (US: HBO; UK: Sky Atlantic)

Less Stephen King, more The Wire in a small town

The Outsider

In the US: Sundays, 9pm, HBO
In the UK: Mondays, 9pm, Sky Atlantic

We seem to be enjoying something of a Stephen King resurgence of late. Time was, back in the 70s and the 80s, you couldn’t move for classic Stephen King movies, such as Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone and Christine. Then came the 90s and some not especially classic Stephen King TV series such as The Tommyknockers and The Langoliers.

After that, despite King’s continuing literary output, adaptations died off for about a decade. There was the occasional new effort, such as a TV version of The Dead Zone, but those were reasonably rare in comparison. It wasn’t really until 2010 and Haven followed by Under the Dome in 2013 that TV and film rediscovered King. Since then, we’ve had a new It, Doctor Sleep, 11.22.63, another The Mist, Mr Mercedes and Castle Rock, to name but a few – and with more to come this year, including a new version of The Stand.

King, of course, isn’t simply a horror writer and his tone varies from book to book. Let us not forget that The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile are both adaptations of King stories.

So I can’t say I’m too surprised to discover that the latest adaptation of King’s work, The Outsider, is as much The Wire as it is a piece of horror.

The Outsider

Inside The Outsider

In fact, you’d be forgiven – for about the first episode, at least – for thinking The Outsider isn’t even a piece of horror, just a regular old police procedural about the murder of a school child and how that affects a small town community. Adapted by Richard Price (The Deuce, Clockers, Child 44, The Night Of), it sees local detective Ben Mendelsohn (Captain Marvel, Animal Kingdom, Bloodline) in hot pursuit of the school coach (Jason Bateman).

All the evidence seems to suggest that it’s Bateman wot dunnit. All the witnesses clearly identify him, his blood and genetic evidence is all over the body and the van used to abduct the boy, and there’s video footage of him in blood-stained clothing. So cast-iron is the evidence that Mendelsohn has him arrested in front of the entire school without asking him even a question.

Unfortunately for Mendelsohn, Bateman has an equally cast-iron alibi – he was out of town at a teaching convention and not only is there physical evidence that he was there and multiple witnesses, public access TV recorded him at the exact time the murder took place.

Has there been a mix-up or can Bateman genuinely be in two places at once?

Inside lane

Now, I’ve just rattled through pretty much the first two episodes there. And although I’ve avoided spoilers as best I can, does that sound like two hours’ worth of plot?

Not really. Because like The Wire, The Outsider starts out slow. This is a slow building up of a police investigation in an under-resourced small town and the people who live there. The literate, observant script paints sympathetic pictures of everyone, even minor characters such as Paddy Considine’s strip club manager, who’s been to so many anti-addiction meetings, “I’m so anonymous I’m invisible now”. Then there’s the heart-rending reactions of the victim’s family, as they have to navigate funeral arrangements to even more tragedy.

The direction and locale are stunning, too – surprisingly, it’s Bateman behind the camera as well as in front – so there are long, slow shots of majestic skylines and landscapes.

It’s also the slow build-up of tension, both the claustrophobia surrounding Bateman as the accusations, evidence and histrionics against him mount up and of the crime itself. Add, on top of that, the mysterious figure that keeps popping up at crime scenes and another mysterious figure who keeps popping up in Jason’s daughter’s bedroom that only she can see and hear. Are they one and the same?

The Outsider Hoodie

Take a The Outsider chance

Even by the end of the second episode, we’re still not really sure what the hell is going on. Clones? Twins? An evil spirit who could impersonate people? Is Bateman even an evil genius in the style of Catherine Tramell?

Instead of quick revelations, we’re following Mendelsohn on his methodical investigation as he tries to work out what’s going on. Fortunately, Price is very good at writing for police, and this all feels like a real investigation, with police asking sensible questions sympathetically, rather than waterboarding and insinuating like so many David Carusos.

It’s all very measured, all very intense, with few big surprises – although when they come, they do shock. So you’re going to need to be patient with The Outsider, and you’ll need to enjoy the company of Ben Mendelsohn a lot. There are plenty of other actors in the show, but it’s basically Mendelsohn’s gig.

Fortunately, I do enjoy Ben Mendelsohn’s company and while I was The Outsider was just a tad faster and a tad more willing to give us more tidbits to whet our appetites from time to time, I’m enjoying its pacing, its look, its feel and the story itself.

It’s a mini-series, so there’s a definite story here. Hopefully, it’ll all be worth it in the end. At the very least, I’ll be in for a few more episodes yet.

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