TV Review: HBO's Version Of Stephen King's 'The Outsider'

Jan 10, 2020
Originally published on January 10, 2020 5:59 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

HBO's latest prestige mini-series is a TV version of a Stephen King novel, "The Outsider." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says this series, which debuts on Sunday, takes a dark subject and makes it darker.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Jason Bateman brings an everyman charm to playing Terry Maitland, a Little League coach who cares more about letting a struggling kid get some playing time than winning any title.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OUTSIDER")

JASON BATEMAN: (As Terry Maitland) If he strikes out, he strikes out, you know?

(APPLAUSE, CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah. And we get knocked out of the tournament.

BATEMAN: (As Terry Maitland) No one's getting knocked out of the tournament. Besides, if he gets a hit, he'll be able to tell his grandkids. You ever think about that?

DEGGANS: Which is why it's so surprising when a police officer he knows strolls up in the middle of a game...

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SIR BRODIE: (As Don Harrier) Hey.

BATEMAN: (As Terry Maitland) What's going on, Don?

DEGGANS: ...And arrests Terry for the savage rape and murder of an 11-year-old boy.

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BRODIE: (As Don Harrier) Terrence Maitland (ph), I'm arresting you for the murder of Frankie Peterson.

BATEMAN: (As Terry Maitland) For the what?

BRODIE: (As Don Harrier) Hold out your wrists, please.

BATEMAN: (As Terry Maitland) What are you talking about? Hey, hey. What are you doing?

BRODIE: (As Don Harrier) You have the right to remain silent.

BATEMAN: (As Terry Maitland) Don, what are you doing?

BRODIE: (As Don Harrier) Do you understand what I'm saying to you? Let's go.

DEGGANS: HBO's "The Outsider" starts as a typical whodunit, slowly revealing there's more to the tale. But to make the early part less predictable and more distinctive, producers mix up the first episode's timeline in a confusing way. Muddled as it is, the show has a distinguished pedigree.

Famed crime novelists Richard Price and Dennis Lehane wrote most of the 10 episodes. Bateman is an executive producer who directs the first two. Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, who won an Emmy for his role on the Netflix drama "Bloodline," is compelling as weary cop Ralph Anderson. He pushed to arrest Maitland in public even though he had some doubts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OUTSIDER")

BEN MENDELSOHN: (As Ralph) This guy has murdered a child. He wants to avoid arrest, but everything he does after that is idiotic. He goes into a strip club covered in blood in front of a bunch of witnesses. It's like he's begging us to catch him. But what kind of criminal does that?

DEGGANS: Eventually, the cops face a dilemma. How do you solve a murder when the evidence shows the suspect was in two places at once? Might there be a supernatural-based explanation? Given that this is based on a Stephen King novel, what do you think? "The Outsider's" story only gets more depressing as police dig into the facts of the murder. And it doesn't help that Mendelsohn's cop is still grieving over the death of his own son from natural causes.

One character who does help lift the show is Holly Gibney, played by Tony, Emmy and Grammy Award-winning actress Cynthia Erivo. Gibney is an investigator - there's implications she's a savant on the autism spectrum - asked by Maitland's lawyer to help on the case.

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CYNTHIA ERIVO: (As Holly Gibney) Well, I'm not agreeing to anything over the phone.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) OK. Why is that?

ERIVO: (As Holly Gibney) Because the last time I committed to a job that way, it turned out that the man who hired me had a swastika tattooed on his forehead. And I didn't discover that until I turned up at his house with his runaway daughter.

DEGGANS: Yeah, that's what passes for humor on this show. Anyway, the series has a problem shared by many Stephen King adaptations. Much of the horror in King's writing comes from placing readers inside the minds of characters, something this TV show struggles to do. The turn towards the supernatural is so slow, the viewers know what's happening before the characters do, which is also frustrating.

Now, I've only seen six of the 10 episodes, so it's possible the conclusion may land better. But for me, "The Outsider" is mostly a pile of promising performers, situations and producers that didn't quite add up to a satisfying story. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROB SIMONSEN'S "ESCAPE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.