The real mystery of HBO’s ‘The Outsider’: Why isn’t it better?


Setting aside the Stephen King branding (which is not always good news when it comes to making compelling TV), “The Outsider” exists in an uncomfortably awkward space between genres — not an innovation in storytelling so much as an attempt to have it both ways. Fans of grisly crime stories (especially those hoping for another “True Detective”-type ruminative murder mystery) will roll their eyes as “The Outsider’s” clues quickly begin pointing toward the supernatural. At the same time, horror fans may agitate at the prolonged pace of it all.

The six episodes made available for this review felt like about two too many, with no sign of a quickening. Slowness, however, is not the issue; nor does it seem right to peg it all on tone. The characters keep remarking that something just doesn’t add up. It’s as if they’re writing this review themselves.

Quickly (I hope), here’s a light plot summary: “Ozark’s” Jason Bateman, who executive-produces and directs “The Outsider’s” first two episodes, stars as Terry Maitland, a devoted husband and father in a peaceful Georgia burg called Cherokee City. While coaching a Little League game, Terry is shockingly arrested for the murder of 11-year-old Frankie Peterson, whose mutilated body was found in the nearby woods days earlier.

Lead police detective Ralph Anderson (“Bloodline’s” Ben Mendelsohn) is convinced of Terry’s guilt (as is the district attorney and the rest of the town), seeing as how his fingerprints are all over the crime scene, along with surveillance videos from several locations that show Terry’s determined movements before the crime and also afterward, in which he appears bloodied and disheveled. It’s him, all right.

Or is it? Terry’s lawyer (Bill Camp) hires an investigator (Jeremy Bobb) who finds video evidence that supports Terry’s alibi — an overnight conference in a town 70 miles away. An unexpected incident at Terry’s first court appearance during the second episode (which also airs Sunday night) sends the story in an entirely different direction, with, it bears noting, some moments of top-notch acting from Bateman and Mendelsohn, who help elevate the material and keep a viewer’s interest.

Indeed, the acting is the biggest reason to keep going. Mare Winningham, as Ralph’s wife, Jeannie, brings a forcefully quiet presence to “The Outsider’s” recurring theme of grief; Julianne Nicholson (“Masters of Sex”) conveys a necessary outrage as Terry’s wife, Glory, who insists that her husband is innocent.

But the real savior in this show, arriving in the third episode, is Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”) as Holly Gibney, a private investigator with a neuroatypical ability to find clues in unsolvable cases. Yes, she’s a savant sleuth — a little too CBS for this kind of show. But Holly’s investigation gives momentum and intrigue to “The Outsider” at the point where it needs it most.

Because of her preternatural intelligence, Holly was poked and prodded as a child by scientists who eventually pronounced her as a medical wonder. So when Ralph tells her “I have no tolerance for the unexplainable,” she sets him straight.

“Well, then, sir, you’ll have no tolerance for me,” she says.

And so, the essential dynamic is set: As Holly’s detective work leads her further into Mulder territory, will she be able to convince these by-the-book Scullys to see the monster in their midst?

Maybe the problem is that “The Outsider,” developed and written for TV by Richard Price (“The Night Of”), stretches the premise too far in an attempt to make certain it passes the HBO sniff test as passably prestige television. Instead, in some sick way, “The Outsider” seems like HBO’s sly imitation of a Netflix series — you know, all those shows that are just sorta good? Not so bad? Could have been better?

The Outsider (two hours) double-episode premiere, Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.



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