This The Outsider review contains spoilers.
The Outsider Episode 1
HBO, as networks, go, doesn’t have a particular brand save for excellence. No matter what the show, HBO wants it to be good, and it wants it to win awards. For beloved critical favorites like The Night Of and the first season of True Detective, however, HBO succeeded wildly at both goals. From the opening overhead shots of a small, sleepy town in Georgia to the final shots of all involved looking wrung out and miserable, HBO’s Stephen King adaptation The Outsider looks to carry on that fine tradition of well-written procedurals anchored by stellar acting performances.
The premise of the show is very simple. A local child in the community named Frankie is discovered dead in a park. Not just dead, mutilated, sexually assaulted, and tortured prior to death. The main suspect is the local Little League coach Terry (Jason Bateman). He’s spotted near the scene of the crime, he’s seen in various places in town covered in blood, there are lots of fingerprints belonging to both him and Frankie at the crime scene and in Terry’s windowless white van, he’s seen picking Frankie up at a local grocery story after Frankie has trouble with his bicycle… for any district attorney, a terrible case like this with an easily identified perpetrator is a slam-dunk, and Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) proceeds accordingly. He’s got a town full of nervous parents, he’s got a suspect who seemingly has no way of getting away with his crime, so Ralph skips preinterview and arrests Terry in a very public manner, in the middle of a playoff Little League game and immediately begins grilling him.
There’s only one problem: Terry has an airtight alibi, with witnesses, forensic evidence, and video footage to back up his consistent story. Is it possible that a man can somehow be in two places at once, 70 miles apart from one another?
The whole point of a debut episode of any show is to hook the audience, and in that mission, The Outsider is successful. Given that it opens with a pretty bog standard “body discovered in a wooded area” sequence, skepticism might be warranted; this is a staple of every mystery show, crime reenactment program, or police procedural. (Bodies are always discovered in the woods, either by people walking dogs or joggers or both.) It’s a trope, but it’s executed well by all involved technically and that hook—he’s visible elsewhere while he’s supposedly also visibly seen doing the crime—is bait for anyone with even the slightest love for crime TV.
Part of what makes The Outsider work so well is the brilliant script from Richard Price. The episode is divided pretty evenly between the two sides of the investigation, Detective Frank who is trying to solve the case and Terry and his lawyer Howie Gold (Bill Camp) and PI Alec Pelley (Jeremy Bobb) who are trying to prove their client’s innocence. Both sides achieve their goals through a series of interviews and fact-finding missions, all of which involve Frank or Pelley interacting with the people of the community or of the hotel in Atlanta that forms the linchpin of Terry’s alibi, and the interrogations, particularly those conducted by Frank, all carry significant gravity. Frank talks to a little girl, an older woman, a strip-club bouncer, and the noose tightens slowly around Terry’s neck. Evidence placing him at the scene tightens the noose further. Then Alec and Howie start loosening the knot, and everyone’s stuck at an impasse.
The solid writing is given weight by the great performances. Jason Bateman, double-dipping as director and actor, wrings tension out of every scene he’s in, be he Terry as victim or Terry as victimizer. When he’s stuck in jail, he doesn’t protest loudly that he’s innocent, he simply asks for his lawyer and refuses to go into lockup with the other prisoners to preserve himself from violence. The other prisoners clearly let him know that they’re waiting for the first slip-up he makes to savage him for being a child killer.
Ben Mendelsohn, the show’s lead as Detective Frank, carries the bulk of the weight of the show’s interrogation sequences, and you can see and hear him as he figures out just how to talk to witnesses to get them to open up, people he has a history with both outside of and within his job. Even smaller roles, like Frank’s wife Jeannie, feature interesting actors making interesting choices; Mare Winningham shows up for one crucial scene, has one crucial speech, and knocks it out of the park in the process.
Bateman the actor is always good, but Bateman the director is a little more surprising. There’s nothing particularly flashy about his style, but he’s got a great hand with the actors and the camera pulls off a few especially clever transitions. There’s a movement between the detectives behind the glass in the interrogation room and Terry on the other side, slumped over a table waiting for them, and rather than cut to the actors entering the other room, they leave frame and enter the scene on the other side via the doorway, and the camera holds on the interrogation scene.
A few moments (the mangled child, the mysterious stranger in the suspicious hoodie) are held too long or feel too on the nose, but the rest of it is full of subtle shifts and movements that serve to muddy the waters and raise doubts about the truthfulness of both sides of the docket. The grief of the Peterson family, Claire Bronson’s Joy in particular, is palpable and painful.
Like all of Stephen King’s work, this adaptation of The Outsider works on a lot of levels. When it wants to be tense or shocking, it succeeds via words, visuals, or both. When lawyers share a dark joke amongst themselves, it’s just enough to let pressure escape without boiling things over. By the time the episode closes on a shot of a worried Terry in a jail cell, the hook is set and the line is tight. All that’s left is to get the fish, AKA the viewer, into the boat.