Alongside an incredible cast, plenty of twists and turns make HBO’s “The Outsider” binge-worthy, particularly now that many of us find ourselves with plenty of time on our hands. It may not feature murderous wives, methamphetamines, or polygamous zookeepers, but it’s still quite entertaining nonetheless.
Based on Stephen King’s 2018 novel, the show combines elements of mystery and horror at an almost maddening pace. Particularly in the first half of the series, “The Outsider” unfolds into a labyrinth of dead ends and ominous clues echoing King’s better works as well as a dash of Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler.
Though I’d already read the novel, I found the show far more compelling than the book itself. Sure, the book is a page-turner with strong elements of mystery and pulp. Richard Price’s adaptation for television, however, manages to smooth out a lot of the rough edges and unsteady plot points that King’s works are sometimes notorious for.
In fact, King is famous for his aversion to plot in his works and even states as such in “On Writing”:
I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.
Unfortunately, “The Outsider” is no exception. Thankfully, Price manages to function as a de facto editor in his rendition of King’s story with solid results.
WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!
For the most part, the show functions largely as a crime thriller punctuated with brief but fantastical moments of supernatural fright. Ralph Anderson, a gnarled small town detective, played exceptionally well by Ben Mendelsohn, arrests Terry Maitland, a popular little league coach, for the brutal murder of a young boy. Amid the uproar and outrage, paradoxical and contradictory evidence emerges.
At loggerheads with his own guilt and misgivings, Anderson begrudgingly recruits Holly Gibney, a quirky private investigator, played by Cynthia Erivo. Fans of King will recall the character of Holly Gibney in other novels as well.
Erivo manages to channel a clinically introverted Sherlock Holmes in playing Holly Gibney though, at odd moments, her portrayal seems to inadvertently hint toward ‘Rain Man.’ Regardless, she does a fine job.
Gibney discovers the otherworldly origins of the murderer in the form of a demonic presence she dubs El Cuco that feeds off grief and anguish. King’s creature draws from various myths including doppelgangers and, more importantly, the Hispanic folklore of Coco, the eater of children, that dates back to the 17th century.
As fantastical as it all sounds, “The Outsider” succeeds in not giving too much of the mysterious creature away while keeping the show grounded as a gritty whodunit. We only get to see the creature in fleeting, peripheral moments that only add to the tension.
Visually, the most terrifying aspects of the show evoke the Uncanny Valley. El Cuco is just barely human enough to give one, at least, a bit of shiver. It’s drooping face and blackened eyes are reminiscent of some of the great costume designs in classic shows like “The Outer Limits” and “The Twilight Zone.” I actually wish they showed a bit more of it.
Now from a digressive vantage point of faith, the otherworldly elements in “The Outsider” are what draw me toward the genre of horror more than anything else, and what make the show such a fun watch. Too often, we are confronted with a very reductive and, dare I say, limited view of reality each and every day. I mean, right now, avalanches of information accost on an hourly basis. A good horror story reminds us that there is far more to this world then what we often have to reckon with to exhaustion.
Amid all the current pandemonium, HBO’s “The Outsider” is not only a worthy distraction, it offers some food for spiritual thought or, at the very least, a reasonable snack of sorts. For fans of mystery and horror, you will not be disappointed.