All the terror that chills our bones can easily be divided into two categories: the real and the unreal. Real terror is anything that could happen–the bad days or unlucky months in which grief or trauma or some other force of nature leaves us panicked and uneasy about the future. Even if you haven’t experienced it, you’ve still felt something like it, because real terror is beamed to us 24 hours a day in the news and online.
Unreal terror, on the other hand, is the icy dread of the uncanny, the shouldn’t-be-real. It’s the primal shock that comes when you see a shadow at the foot of your bed or catch a glimpse of someone in a crowd who couldn’t possibly be there. It is, to paraphrase a passage from Stephen King’s IT, an unbearable, existential wrongness, something that can’t be looked at directly for too long with a sane mind.
King has married these two types of terror (plus plenty of horrors) together in his writing for so long that it sometimes feels as if he invented them. His best works frighten and provoke us even as they make us feel deeply, and the impeccable new HBO series The Outsider is no exception.
To compare The Outsider, a disturbing horror-crime saga billed as a limited series, to other prestige HBO crime series like The Night Of or True Detective would be to oversimplify all three, yet you couldn’t be blamed for seeing the similarities between the addictive, week-by-week mysteries. The Night Of writer Richard Price developed the series and penned several of the season’s episodes, while novelist Dennis Lehane–whose bona fides include the novels that inspired Mystic River, Shutter Island, and Gone Baby Gone–is credited with two later season episodes. The Outsider, it’s safe to say, has noir in its blood. If that’s not enough, the director of our own favorite horror movie of the last decade, Karyn Kusama, steps in to direct episode six.
When it comes to prestige TV, sometimes having this much excellence in a room is a sure thing, but other times, more than one established creative types is a recipe for disaster (see: Big Little Lies season two). Lucky for us, The Outsider–which has so far aired three episodes, although I’ve screened the first six–is far from disastrous. From its first episode, the show stands out for a half-dozen different reasons. It’s King’s oeuvre as we’ve never seen it done before, with moody camerawork, taut scripts, and what at first appears to be a complete genre shift for the Master of Horror. A score that alternately creeps and pounds (courtesy of Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans) is destined to be streamed for years to come, and the inky, eerie mystery at the story’s heart is perfectly designed to get under your skin.
When The Outsider starts, a boy’s body has just been found, and he’s been tortured and murdered. A Georgia community is shocked when local Little League coach and family man Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman), is arrested after several witnesses, crime scene evidence, and even security footage prove that he’s the clear culprit. This inspires real terror. The only problem is, Maitland was also on camera at an educational conference hours away during the time of the murder. He didn’t do it, but he also definitely did. Oh, and did we mention his daughter is talking to an imaginary man who tells her to give the family messages? This inspires unreal terror, although, in the tradition of stories with skeptical protagonists, the viewers at home get goosebumps well before the characters on screen do.
To give out any more details about The Outsider’s plot would spoil the thrilling, almost luxurious feeling that comes with witnessing a Stephen King work that’s still capable of being surprising. After decades of adaptations and re-adaptations of familiar stories, it’s easy to take the novelist’s ability to stun his audience for granted, but since The Outsider was published less than two years ago, it’s fresh territory for many of us. And surprise it does–each episode builds in space for at least one gasp or exclamation, even as most of the story unfurls in slow-burn fashion, thanks to this team of storytellers’ knack for unrelenting darkness and narrative sleight of hand.
Bateman is aces as Maitland, a man who seems at once both innocent and like he’d be more than capable of selling his innocence even if he weren’t. Ben Mendelsohn, whose previous mainstream roles in films like Ready Player One and Captain Marvel have required broader performances, is here finely tuned and honest in his portrayal of the detective who arrests Terry and is forced to live with the unexpected consequences of his decision. Meanwhile, Cynthia Erivo steals every scene she’s in with her turn as Holly Gibney, an unorthodox private investigator who also appears in three of King’s other books. These are, I dare say, characters I’d love to watch far beyond the series’ presumed one-season expiration date.
Upon its release, King’s The Outsider garnered rave reviews that claimed he was in top form, several of which compared it to one of his most-loved tomes, IT. It would be easy to dismiss these comparisons as simple word association games, given that the lucrative film version of IT dropped months before the book, but as we’re pulled further into the murky, frightening world of HBO’s The Outsider each week, these lofty comparisons begin to ring true.
If the series simply dished up a strong mystery and some good armchair scares, that would be enough, but there’s something much deeper lurking around its edges. Price’s take on The Outsider is brimming with meditations on grief, on wrongful imprisonment, on the power of public opinion, and most intriguingly of all, on the sickly sprawl of crime. In an era rife with news coverage of lone gunmen and rampant sexual misconduct and near-pathological corruption, The Outsider examines the ways in which crimes and tragedies can send shockwaves across families, communities, and entire countries, giving an often-cold genre an intimate touch and an almost uncomfortably complex moral center.
With a lot on its mind, an empathetic heart, and a team that’s more than capable of delivering a great story, The Outsider is can’t-miss television and a King fan’s dream come true.