The Outsider Review: Your New Twisted and Terrifying True-Crime Obsession

For more than 40 years, Stephen King has rightfully become regarded as a master of horror, as his various terrifying tales have been celebrated by millions of audiences. Despite delving into other genres, including drama and fantasy, his reputation is rightfully accredited to delivering fans immensely disturbing adventures. While his novel The Outsider, which has most recently been turned into a limited series by HBO, might seem like a somewhat straightforward serial killer thriller, audiences quickly discover that there might be something otherworldly at play. In a crowded field of true-crime TV series, The Outsider has cemented itself as a complex and chilling enigma, easily becoming the most frightening murder mystery since the debut of True Detective.

Following the discovery of a murdered and mutilated young boy, detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) has an abundance of physical and photographic evidence to lock up little league coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman), shocking their small Georgia community. Things aren't entirely as they seem, however, as there is just as much physical and photographic evidence that places Maitland at a conference more than 60 miles away. Local law enforcement is faced with the bizarre case in which one individual has apparently existed in two places at once, igniting an entirely unexpected journey that threatens to bring with it world-shattering ramifications.

In the wake of True Detective, in conjunction with TV shows elevating the standard of what can be accomplished on the small screen, a number of true-crime series have debuted, with series like The Night Of, Mindhunter, and The Sinner impressing both audiences and critics. Part of what set the first season of True Detective apart from its predecessors were the ways in which it hinted at there being more to the story than our known reality, which many other series have done, only to reveal very human motivations behind the carnage. The Outsider, on the other hand, makes good on unexplainable mythology being the cause of seemingly impossible events. Virtually all other series could simply reveal forces from beyond as the reasoning for unexplained events, while The Outsider organically plants that seed and allows that concept to gestate parallel to the real-world evidence our protagonists are collecting. Additionally, the series doesn't merely reveal a genuine monster in the first episode that is the root of all evil, allowing both the audience and the series' characters to wonder if sinister forces truly are at play or if we are being intentionally misled.

Like most King stories, the narrative is only one component of what makes this series so compelling, with the endearing characters being the true strong suit of his lore. The Outsider is full of relatively mundane characters who we connect with due to their more unexceptional traits. Mendelsohn's Anderson feels similar to a number of other of King's middle-aged heroes, though he has enough tragedy in his history to make you empathize with him, even as we see him make one mistake after another. Bateman's Maitland is just smug enough that you hope he gets what's coming to him, yet displays enough vulnerability to make audiences conflate his ego with an overwhelming sense of bewilderment over how he could be blamed for the events.

Introduced later in the series, Cynthia Erivo's Holly Gibney is the quirkiest character, serving as the only one willing to step back from the cold, hard facts to allow for the possibility of other forces being at play. She struggles with interpersonal relationships, yet can quickly tell you how tall a building is after a quick glance or remember the score of even the most obscure baseball games that happened before she was born. Despite displaying the least human of characteristics, Holly is a surrogate for the audience, questioning whether there's more to this case than what can be analyzed in a lab and possibly be influenced by things of legend.

Adding to the strengths of the core characters, The Outsider never gets too far away from the consequences of a murder taking place in a small town. Regardless of who, or what, is ultimately responsible for the murders, Maitland's family becomes ostracized from the community and the target of harassment, all while various other characters continue to demonstrate their grief and failure to cope with the horrific losses they've suffered. Just as much as we enjoy watching the complex narrative unravel before our eyes, we also connect with the journey from a much more emotional level, left feeling devastated by these fictional crimes and the grounded interpretations of the actual emotional and tragic fallout that comes with such losses in the real world.

All of King's stories seem to exist in a shared universe, thanks to how many of his stories take place in Maine and tangentially connect to the fictional town of Castle Rock, with a cinematic language across all mediums emphasizing this concept. The Outsider feels reminiscent of King's works in the overall narrative, though looks and sounds like an entirely unique experience, thanks to writer Richard Price and directors like Bateman, Andrew Bernstein, and Karyn Kusama. Given Price's accomplishments with The Wire and The Night Of, The Outsider feels like it's embracing a different tone from any other King adaptation, allowing the work to stand on its own instead of instantly drawing comparisons to all the other King stories that have been brought to life.

The Outsider might immediately appear to be just another true-crime series that is cashing in on the popular trend, offering a complex and captivating enigma, but what makes it unlike any of its peers is its tragically human characters and the embrace of the idea that there could be more to the known world than what we've been led to believe, making the series thrilling, disturbing, and addictive.

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Rating: 5 out of 5

The Outsider premieres on HBO on Sunday, January 12th.

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