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The Outsider: Fish in a Barrel (Pilot)

Ominous music continues…

It seems like an open-and-shut case: three eyewitnesses, video surveillance, fingerprints, and blood type all indicate that beloved Little League coach Terry Maitland brutally abused and murdered young Frankie Peterson. But in the age of prestige television, nothing is ever that simple...

HBO has jumped on the Stephen King bandwagon this winter with an adaptation of his recent novel The Outsider, a limited series that traces the investigation and effects of the murder of a young boy in a small Georgia town. That all may sound like a procedural in the vein of True Detective, but King’s novel is a mixture of crime procedural and the horror stories he’s best known for.

Jason Bateman directed the first two episodes, both of which are available now. Although Bateman has a predilection for low-angle shots, the cinematography is beautiful. He does a wonderful job of eliciting nuanced acting from series star Ben Mendelson (who plays Detective Ralph Anderson) and each of the supporting players. Yul Vasquez (Georgia state investigator Yunis Sabio) and Julianne Nicholson (Terry's wife Glory Maitland) are two standouts among many, but the best of the secondary characters is Hetienne Park's Tamika Collins (one of Ralph’s fellow detectives), who brings much-needed levity to this very, very dour story.

And it is dour. So bleak. So moody. So dimly lit and sad and weighed down by grief, violence, and existential confusion. How bleak it is? Well, I watch television with captions, because my hearing’s not great and I like my neighbors, and one of my favorite parts of captioning is to see how the captioners describe the music. In this case, “tense,” “moody,” and “ominous” were recurring key words. (Hence my lead quote above.)

Does that mean I want a wacky murder-investigation sitcom? No. But the dourness of this adaptation reminds me of what I love about King’s novels. It’s not the plots. It’s not the mood. It’s not even the thrills and scares. (I don’t even really like the horror genre.) Rather, it’s the comforting familiarity of his style and approach. I’ve spent long enough reading, and re-reading, King that each novel is like a new chance to spend time with an old friend—the pleasure is not in their elegance, their panache, or their changes. It’s that they haven’t changed. They have only become more themselves.

It’s impossible to translate that quality to a television adaptation, and that may be part of why The Outsider left me only mildly interested. As a police procedural, it has holes. For example, as one character points out, why didn’t the detectives follow basic standard procedure and ask Terry Maitland to account for his whereabouts on the day of the murder? Doing so would have helped them realize sooner, before the public fallout, that apparently Terry was not only murdering a young boy but also attending a teacher’s conference 70 miles away.

I’m willing to overlook plot holes in King’s recent foray into detective novels, but those gaps become more evident in a mediocre show. King’s novel is about public visibility (and the power of being seen or unseen). It’s also about the way violence is a boulder thrown into a pond: the ripples turn into tsunamis, and soon the body count begins to rise. None of those themes could emerge without the clunky plotting, but the clunky plotting is hard to ignore amid all the understated ominous music and dimly lit grief.

That’s not to say that this show is bad. I’m willing to give it a chance, I think. There are hints, in the first two episodes, of the horror elements that will emerge eventually; I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the man in the gray hoodie who keeps lurking around the edges of various scenes is an important player here. The series of dramatic events in the second episode are a nice reminder that, at the very least, the show is willing to move quickly.

Plus, starting in episode three, Cynthia Ervino will join the cast as recurring King character Holly Gibney. Ervino blew me away in Bad Times at the El Royale, a movie I loved so much I still can’t figure out how to review it. (She also played Harriet Tubman in the recent eponymous film, and will be Aretha Franklin in the upcoming third season of Genius.) I’m curious to see how she relates to the current cast, and how her role lines up with the turn towards the horrific.

But I’m also wondering if I’ll gradually forget to watch this show, like His Dark Materials and a few other expensive, complicated shows that I just never connected with. A show can be well done—that is, it can do everything right—and somehow just not be memorable or affecting. I’m not sure it’s worth my time to let The Outsider in.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

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