The Outsider is Better as a One-Season Wonder

With HBO having passed on The Outsider season 2, the show’s studio is shopping for a new network. But perhaps it’s time to leave well enough alone.

The Outsider Canceled
Photo: HBO

Here’s a fun little look behind the curtain. Back when HBO announced the release date of Richard Price’s atmospheric Stephen King adaptation, The Outsider, Den of Geek ran the news as an article, as one does. 

Shortly after the article went live, representatives from HBO reached out to clarify that they weren’t categorizing the project as a “miniseries” as many outlets (and none other than Wikipedia itself) had reported but rather a traditional series. It seemed clear then that HBO had at least the possibility of multiple seasons in mind when it greenlit the show. After all, why wouldn’t they? Stephen King adaptations always tend to do well and The Outsider boasted a solid cast (led by Ben Mendelsohn, Cynthia Erivo, Paddy Considine, and Jason Bateman) and an intriguing concept true crime-meets- the-supernatural concept

The Outsider would then go on to pull off 10 good episodes, receive modest-to-excellent critical acclaim, kill it in the ratings, and drive online chatter for a month or so. A second season seemed all but assured. In fact, according to both original author King and showrunner Price, scripts were already being churned out for season 2. That’s why the news that HBO isn’t moving forward with a second season after all is particularly shocking.

“We enjoyed our collaboration with Richard, Jason, Andrew, and the MRC team, and we wish them well in continuing the world created by the brilliant Stephen King,” an HBO spokesperson told Variety in a statement.

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The show’s production studio MRC is free to find new network or streaming suitors for its second season and seems determined to do just that. Still, such an unexpected turnaround from HBO begs the question: why was this show canceled in the first place?

For starters, it’s important to understand that HBO is rather unusual when it comes to television networks (as the company itself likes to say “It’s not TV, it’s HBO”). While features like ratings successes, buzzworthy actors, and Stephen King have plenty of cachet on traditional TV enterprises, HBO isn’t always swayed by such things. Just look to the fact that HBO has pretty definitively closed the door on future seasons for its beloved Watchmen miniseries or that this summer’s hit Lovecraft Country isn’t a given for season 2. HBO makes its money from subscribers but also by maintaining its identity as a “premium band.” Certain seasons of Game of Thrones notwithstanding, HBO is usually preoccupied first and foremost with quality. Such has been the case for years and such remains the case for now, even as its new parent company WarnerMedia undergoes a grand consolidation via HBO Max. 

With that in mind, it’s possible that the decision-makers at HBO just felt that the story of The Outsider had already been told and any future seasons would only jeopardize what was currently a good thing. Or maybe I’m projecting because that’s what I believe.

I can’t help but react to the news that HBO turned down future seasons of The Outsider with some relief. In its first (and potentially only) season, the show handled its themes and story quite deftly over its 10 allotted episodes. Regardless of whether one thinks the show was good or not, it’s hard to argue with the notion that 10 episodes wasn’t the perfect amount of episodes for the story it had to tell. 

At its core, The Outsider is a simple yarn. A group of individuals in a small, very King-ian Georgia town are confronted with something impossible. Terry Maitland (Bateman) very clearly killed local boy Frankie Peterson. His DNA is all over the scene and surveillance video can track him to the crime easily. And yet, there’s competing evidence that Terry was in another city entirely while the crime was being committed. Cherokee City detective Ralph Anderson (Mendelsohn) must then not only solve an unsolvable case, but slowly come to grips with the fact that there may be such a thing as the boogeyman after all.

When written out like that, the plot of The Outsider actually sounds overly straightforward and maybe even a little boring. And to a certain extent perhaps that’s true. It’s just that the execution of said plot is superb. “Man of science coming to grips with the fantastical” is a tried and true theme in storytelling. Rarely, however, has it been presented so compellingly as it is in The Outsider’s first season. As Cynthia Erivo’s private detective Holly Gibney and many of her allies come to terms with the existence of the mythical “El Coco”, Ralph just can’t bring himself to join them.

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Ralph needs more evidence, then more, and more, and more, and more until the truth of things that go bump in the night are almost quite literally staring him in the face. And though that might come across as exasperating in lesser hands, Mendelsohn makes Ralph’s rugged skepticism the show’s greatest special effect. Ralph decided that believing in things bigger than himself was pointless after his son died, so why should he start doing so now just because there seems to be an actual monster on the loose? The journey that Ralph goes on, or more accurately the journey that Holly takes Ralph on, is the centerpiece of The Outsider and the key to all its success.

Despite one storytelling cliffhanger, The Outsider ends on a thematically definitive note. This was the story of one man choosing to believe again and now that he has that story is over. The nuts and bolts of The Outsider still exist in the show’s continuity: Ralph, Holly, Claude, Yunis, and perhaps even El Coco himself are still out there. But that thematic journey is over and it’s hard to imagine the show conjuring up another nearly as compelling. 

I suppose we’ll see once another networks swoops in to save the show, which one almost certainly will.