There’s been something of a renaissance lately of Stephen King adaptations with last year being stuffed with both movies and series. Whether you went to see the sequel to one of Stanley Kubrick’s most enduring films or tuned into the latest season of Hulu’s love letter to all things King in Castle Rock (2018-Present), there’s been no slowdown in adaptations well into 2020 and beyond. The latest King adaptation from HBO, The Outsider (based on the 2018 novel) has an almost deceptively simple premise. Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) is a respected little league coach in a small Georgia town accused of the gruesome murder of a child with overwhelming DNA evidence. After being taken into custody by detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn), evidence placing Maitland miles away during the time of the murder is unearthed throwing everyone’s presumptions out the window.
Though supernatural elements are gradually weaved into the narrative, the bulk of what makes The Outsider unsettling has more to do with cognitive dissonance than it does any boogeyman in the shadows. The series wisely keeps those elements out of view until the later episodes, leaving us with a group of people grappling with a way to make some kind of sense of what’s going on. There’s a realness to the characters and their reactions to what’s happening that feel like they’re missing in other Stephen King adaptations. The Terry Maitland case sends shockwaves through the community, forever marking his family as pariahs. This drives everyone working the case to enlist the help of private investigator Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo). Holly herself is an outsider, and Erivo plays the neuroatypical investigator with warmth and subtlety, and the first to begin exploring a more supernatural explanation for the chain of events.
Mendelsohn plays Ralph as Holly’s foil: a dogmatic realist searching for the stone cold facts that will provide the evidence to exonerate Maitland after being so sure of his guilt. This is mostly driven by how the case touches on a personal nerve regarding memories of his own deceased son. Ralph struggles to reconcile the facts, which point in equal directions toward guilt and innocence, while Holly wants an answer regardless of what avenue it leads her. This puts The Outsider in a category that leans more heavily into a moody, tense police procedural versus out-and-out horror and it largely feels like the right decision. The series milks the tension of the unknowable for all it’s worth without overstaying its welcome. There’s the sense of uneasiness as the characters work their way to the truth, edging ever closer to the titular outsider who seems to simultaneously be the cause of all the misery yet always out of reach on the periphy of the investigation.
Perhaps if anything can be held against HBO’s adaptation of The Outsider, it’s that Stephen King’s Achilles heel has always been his inability to write a satisfactory ending to go along with what’s an otherwise excellent story. The series runs somewhat out of gas towards the inevitable conclusion in which more of the supernatural elements of the story must take center stage. It’s not done in any overtly-hokey way. Focused on the characters, it still finds a way to remain more realistic (don’t expect any of the over-the-top bombast of the final battle in 2019’s IT: Chapter Two, thankfully) and when the series finally decides the audience has been strung along long enough,it ends at just about the right length without overstaying its welcome. The Outsider is a satisfying Stephen King adaptation that delivers on a serious, somber tone with engrossing characters even if it has trouble juggling the more supernatural horror elements and the ending. Approaching Stephen King’s work as prestige cable television in the vein of True Detective feels like the right choice for The Outsider, managing to reel you in with its mysteries right from the first episode. Hopefully, more of Stephen King’s books will get a similar treatment as the golden age of King adaptations continues to steamroll through in 2020.