Can you believe it's been six years since True Detective Season 1? That game-changing HBO anthology has influenced dozens of ambitious shows in the years since, and yet it in a way it's never gotten a proper follow-up. The two subsequent seasons abandoned the first's mysticism, which couldn't help but disappoint viewers who were hoping for multiple seasons of a very well-made supernatural crime anthology. It seems like HBO agrees, and rather than wait for Nic Pizzolatto to go back to the supernatural well, they decided to develop a new project in a similar vein. That show is The Outsider, which scratches that very particular itch of "detectives using traditional police methods to investigate a supernatural case." There's a killer on the loose, and he might not be human.
The Outsider is the product of two brilliant writers trying something different. The source material is a 2018 novel by Stephen King where the legendary novelist took the detective genre he'd been experimenting with in the Bill Hodges trilogy (adapted into the series Mr. Mercedes) and injected a dose of his signature supernatural horror. And the TV adaptation is executive-produced and primarily written by Richard Price, one of America's greatest crime novelists (check out the extraordinary Lush Life) and screenwriters. Price knows detective stories inside and out, but this is his first time doing anything with a horror element, unless you think The Night Of is about the horror of Rikers Island.
The Outsider starts with the discovery of the horribly mangled body of an 11-year-old boy in the Georgia woods. The case is picked up by Det. Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn), who is grieving the recent loss of his own son. All the evidence -- eyewitness accounts, video footage, etc. -- points to Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman), an upstanding family man, high school teacher, and Little League coach who taught Anderson's own son how to bunt. But there's also conflicting and equally credible video evidence that puts Maitland 60 miles away from town when the murder took place. Anderson is baffled, and he enlists the help of Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), a neuroatypical private investigator who also appeared in the Bill Hodges trilogy (she's played by Justine Lupe on Mr. Mercedes). Gibney is brilliant, and she knows or is able to figure out everything except why she is the way she is, which makes her more open to the uncanny and the inexplicable than the by-the-book Anderson, and she starts to suspect that there are supernatural elements at play. And at the corners of the story, there's a hooded figure with a blurry face, who always happens to be there when something bad happens.
It's satisfying, in a "you got chocolate in my peanut butter" way, to watch a traditional detective story that slowly transforms into a paranormal investigation. Anderson is a grounded cop archetype, and Mendelsohn plays him like he's on a crime drama, not a paranormal thriller. Gibney is brilliant, but she's not psychic, like she would be if this were a traditional Stephen King story. You watch to see the cop side and the horror side move closer and closer together. And it is definitely a slow burn; there's a lot of moody brooding and dogged investigative work throughout the six episodes sent to critics that may try the patience of viewers who want a propulsive plot.
The Outsider is for the most part a success, with great performances from Mendelsohn and Erivo and a supporting stable of HBO repertory players like Bill Camp and Julianne Nicholson, but it does have a few flaws that keep it from reaching True Detective Season 1 heights. The characters of Anderson and Gibney feel lost in adaptation, like you need to have read the books to really understand why they are the way they are. There are depths to them that got compressed to fit TV, but are still gestured at in a way that doesn't fully work. And it lacks True Detective's visual flair. Jason Bateman, who directs the first two episodes, creates an eerie atmosphere, but he doesn't have Cary Fukunaga's imagination. The look of the show could have taken a little more inspiration from supernatural horror than it did.
The past few years have seen a flood of Stephen King adaptations, and The Outsider is different than all of them. It's fascinating to see his familiar themes (grief) and tropes (people controlled by a malevolent force) rendered in the somber tones of an HBO drama. It's worth checking out just for that.
TV Guide rating: 3.5/5
The Outsider premieres with two back-to-back episodes on Sunday, Jan. 12 starting at 9/8c on HBO.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)