'The Outsider' review: Extensively-plotted, emotionally-layered, and keeps you hooked till the end

HBO’s adaptation of the 2018 Stephen King novel is a treat for lovers of slow-burn investigative dramas

It mustn’t be easy to sell the “slow-burn procedural unfolding against the backdrop of a shocking murder in a small town” pitch to a TV audience any more, and so it is no surprise that HBO decided to back “a slow-burn procedural unfolding against the backdrop of a shocking murder in a small town — with a supernatural twist” plot to reel in viewers.

The Outsider is an adaptation of a 2018 Stephen King novel that combines elements of two genres that enjoy red-hot popularity on TV: supernatural fantasy and true crime. There could not be material more ideal for a miniseries, because while the show offers the comfort (discomfort?) of dark investigative dramas, it also throws in bone-chilling scares and several jump-out-of-your-chair moments associated with adaptations of King’s works.

What highly works in The Outsider’s favour is an unusual yet riveting pilot episode, which sets up the shows’ world beautifully. Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) is on his way to a baseball game with his fellow officers to arrest high school coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) for the gruesome murder of a young boy. There are multiple witnesses who have offered up damning testimonies, and a mountain of forensic discovery to suggest Maitland is the killer.

A case that seems like a slam dunk, however, takes a turn when overwhelming evidence about Maitland being present in a different town at the time of the murder turns up. Both scenarios — that of Maitland having murdered the kid, and him being nowhere near the child at the time of the death — seem equally likely. Has Maitland concocted the perfect crime? Is there a doppelgänger on the loose? At one point, I even began wondering if there is an alternate timeline being hinted at.

A lot of this — the crime, the arrest, the conflicting evidence, Maitland’s incarceration, etc — emerges in the first episode itself; an hour packed with enough plot developments to make you wonder what the rest of the show will cover. This is where screenwriter Richard Price (The Night Of, The Wire) excels: the pacing of each episode — and not just the pilot — is exquisite, even as the point of intrigue often seamlessly shifts from one plot-point to another.

And there is a wonderful ensemble to boot. Ever since Mendelsohn broke onto the scene with his marvellous performance on Bloodline, he has been picking up substantial roles in Hollywood movies. But here, he gets to truly dig in and display his wide range as a performer. Bateman plays Maitland with eerie efficiency. Bill Camp, Jeremy Bobb and Mare Winningham are all terrific, and watching all these great actors in the same frame is a real treat. There is also Cynthia Erivo, who only appears in the third episode as a private investigator with a taste for the supernatural — a complete foil to Anderson’s character, who only goes by hard evidence. Their beliefs often clash, making them the perfect duo to play off each other.

The Outsider’s USP, apart from that stellar cast, is that it is a whodunit and a howdunit and a whydunit and even a whatdunit all rolled into one, and it does so without ever turning messy. I did feel that the veil was lifted off its big mystery a bit earlier than desirable, resulting in the show peaking mid-season, but the final act is not disappointing by any stretch of imagination. As far as book adaptations go, it embodies all the qualities of a great novel: it is extensively-plotted, emotionally-layered, and keeps you hooked till the very end.

The Outsider is now streaming on Hotstar.

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