Accepting the Unexplainable in HBO Miniseries 'The Outsider'

CityBeat's Jac Kern writes that HBO's "The Outsider" is one of the best horror series in a while — particularly for skeptics.

click to enlarge Ben Mendelsohn (left) and Cynthia Erivo in "The Outsider." - Bob Mahoney/HBO
Bob Mahoney/HBO
Ben Mendelsohn (left) and Cynthia Erivo in "The Outsider."

HBO miniseries The Outsider (9 p.m. Sundays) starts out straightforward enough. A Georgia boy is found brutally murdered in the woods, with an unsuspecting family man as the prime suspect. We know little about the accused, Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman, who also directs the first two episodes), but it’s hard to believe this seemingly normal husband, father and baseball coach could be capable of such a heinous crime. 

Yet evidence mounts: witnesses connect him to the victim, Frankie Peterson; his DNA is discovered at the crime scene; and he’s spotted on nearby security cameras. It’s enough to arrest Terry, and his town begins to turn on him. He’s convicted in the court of public opinion before he ever faces a judge or jury.

But Terry and his wife, Glory (Julianne Nicholson), maintain his innocence, claiming he was out of town at the time. And sure enough, for every bit of damning evidence, there’s proof of the contrary — other witnesses and video place him in another city at the time of the murder.

How can a person be in two places at one time?

The action contained in the first two episodes could easily fill an entire season of a different slow-burning murdery-mystery. But with a Hitchcockian first-act twist, it becomes clear that’s not what The Outsider is about.

Being a Stephen King adaptation, the answer lies in something supernatural, something sinister — this isn’t the case of an evil long-lost twin. 

Of course, that theory isn’t satisfactory for many of the players in this case. Detective Ralph Anderson (the always transformative Ben Mendelsohn) is in many ways a textbook cop. He’s pragmatic, he follows the evidence. If you find something you can’t explain, you haven’t investigated hard enough. 

But his own connections to the case take a toll under his unflappable surface. Besides knowing Terry and his family personally, Ralph lost his own son not so long ago to cancer. He and his wife Jeannie (Mare Winningham) are still putting the pieces of their family back together. Meanwhile, the Peterson family, coming to terms with the horrific loss of their boy, falls completely apart in grief. When local and state police fail to make sense of it all, they call in unorthodox backup. Recent Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) delivers a nuanced performance as Holly Gibney, a private investigator who is willing to follow any lead, even into uncharted and unbelievable territory, often placing herself in danger. She’s also on the autism spectrum, something that’s not discussed at length but is evident in her quirks and particularities. Incredibly bright and sharp, her neurodiversity makes her even better at her job.

It’s Holly who is able to connect the murder and Terry to a string of other unusual cases, and knowing she’ll face scrutiny and be deemed crazy, coaxes the team into thinking outside of the box in terms of who or what forces are at the center of this chain of despair. And no one is more resistant to this line of thought than Ralph. It’s as if accepting something so out of this world would force him to reevaluate everything he stands for and all that he knows.

More and more unexplained patterns, eerie coincidences and practical impossibilities mount until everyone must consider something illogical and unknown. And the mission shifts from merely trying to identify the killer to tracking and stopping it from causing even more harm.

The Outsider manages to keep the momentum of the story without revealing its villain, building tension and upping the creep factor. What makes the bogeyman so scary is not knowing what he looks like, but instead feeling his ominous presence.

Much like Holly convincing cops to believe in monsters, the entire cast gives understated, realistic performances, making this one of the best horror series in a while — particularly for skeptics. It wouldn’t surprise me if they inspire a second season.