Catching Evil (Series Review: “The Outsider”)

A more poignant darkness prevails in this disturbing series, adapted from a novel by the master himself, Stephen King

SnapShot Plot

The Outsider isn’t the kind of supernatural thriller that you have to survive with a blankie over your head, peeking through splayed fingers. No, its much more sophisticated than that, with an impressive ensemble cast in something that’s basically a protracted bogeyman story. Based on the novel by Stephen King, it’s about a brutal child murder that takes place in a small town in Georgia (a departure from the New England settings of most Stephen King tales), in which an overwhelming amount of forensic evidence irrefutably identifies a beloved teacher and Little League coach, played by Jason Bateman. The coach, Terry Maitland, is the last person one would ever suspect of the heinous murder of little Frankie Peterson. The lead detective, Ralph Anderson – played with trademark effortlessness by Ben Mendelsohn – is a Man of Reason. Ralph doesn’t like loose ends, or unexplained scenarios. He and his wife Jeannie (Mare Winningham) have recently experienced their own family tragedy, and are just beginning to resume a new normalcy in their marriage.

When Terry Maitland is arrested in front of his wife and the whole town, insisting he could never do the thing he’s been accused of, his protestations fall on deaf ears. Ralph and his team have everything they need for an open & shut case, until Maitland’s wife, Glory (in a heartbreaking performance by veteran character actor Julianne Nicholson) hires a defense attorney who starts digging and discovers the unexplainable. If Terry Maitland really killed Frankie Peterson, then how can a variety of incontrovertible evidence prove – without a doubt – that he wasn’t even in the same State when the murder took place?

Enter an unforgettable character named Holly Gibney (played with an almost unnerving calm by Cynthia Erivo), who is entrusted by both the police and the defense team to figure out the mystery. Holly is a peculiar yet absolutely brilliant private investigator with a photographic memory; she’s probably on the autism spectrum and can easily be labeled as a savant in a variety of fields. When Holly’s investigation unearths other child murder prosecutions in which the same confounding ‘two-places-at-the-same-time’ scenario has taken place, her search for the truth uncovers a paranormal theory of contagion no one wants to hear, let alone believe, least of all Ralph Anderson.

Parting Shot

The acclaimed novelist and TV writer Richard Price developed The Outsider for HBO, with some episodes directed by Jason Bateman. Bateman shared executive producer credits with (among others) Ben Mendelsohn, and it shows in the actor-centric approach to filming. The series is beautifully scripted, shot and directed, with the actors given the kind of lingering and somber close-ups that convey every emotional nuance, even those their characters wish to conceal from view. So what makes The Outsider so viscerally appealing, beyond the straight-up supernatural stuff we expect in a Stephen King adaptation, is this character rich odyssey on which we’ve jumped aboard. As much as we are frightened silly by the events unfolding around them, these people have touched us deeply; hence we feel their loss and their horror that much more palpably.

We’ve been frightened a lot as a species, lately. Images of contagion and infection are everywhere. When Stephen King wrote The Outsider, he couldn’t have predicted the current state of the World, nor could the filmmakers who adapted his story for television. And without the current lens of viral pandemic, perhaps we wouldn’t perceive the show’s sub-text in as sinister an interpretation as we do now. Without giving too much away, what we must wonder (if not aloud, then at least whispered to ourselves) has to do with the very nature of Evil, and if it is indeed something communicable. That, and the other indisputable theme of the series, which has to do with Logic and Reason. The most central arc in the story is that of Ralph Anderson, the quintessentially Rational Man who ever so slowly must face the truth that there are elements in this World that are essentially Unknowable.

I was reminded (strangely) of a quote from The Big Chill, in which Jeff Goldblum’s character is talking to Tom Berenger’s character about the power of Rationalization. He says, “I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.” To which the other guy says, “Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.” Goldblum retorts, “Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?” As The Outsider demonstrates, what we wouldn’t do without a juicy Rationalization just about now.

The Outsider is presently streaming on HBO.

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