In its first episodes, “The Outsider” pushes reason to the limit. The new 10-part miniseries adaptation of the 2018 Stephen King novel begins to unfold like a step-by-step police procedural, with the cops closing in on one suspect — Jason Bateman’s beloved school baseball coach Terry Maitland — for the rape and brutal murder of an 11-year-old boy. It looks like we’re in for a twisty, step-by-step, and atmospheric whodunit, somewhat on the order of “The Night Of,” which was written by the same screenwriter, Richard Price.
But then the wall comes down on logic. Along with Ben Mendelsohn’s Detective Ralph Anderson, we soon discover that Maitland appears to have been in two places at once, with filmed and forensic evidence of him both out of town and at the murder scene at the time of the murder. Also, and only we know this, there is a hooded person lurking around the Georgia town, particularly at crime sites, who may not be entirely human. All the gritty texture and detail at play in this production are not in service of realism, it seems. The dialogue is Price, but the story line is ultimately rooted in King and his otherworldly creepiness.
So “The Outsider” represents a chillingly effective mingling of King the horror king and Price the crime guy, whose credits include “Clockers” (the movie and the book), “The Wire,” and “Sea of Love.” It’s a hybrid of two distinct creators. When the commonsensible Ralph, weary from the impossibility of the evidence, says, “I have no tolerance for the unexplainable,” you know his tolerance is going to be tested again and again, as is Price’s more grounded take on crime. Ralph says this to the private investigator brought onto the case who’s part of the King-verse, Holly Gibney. An expert of sorts in the unexplainable, this version of Holly is played by Cynthia Erivo as a black woman (she’s younger and white in the books) whose endearing social awkwardness suggests a spectrum disorder. Brilliant when it comes to gathering evidence, both material and otherwise, the sensitive Holly leads the investigation into more paranormal realms.
Grief is a huge theme in “The Outsider,” and whatever or whoever is behind the boy’s murder — as well as its attendant crises, which I won’t spoil here — appears to have a fetish for those reeling from loss. As the number of grieving characters grows, their sorrow is the human-level story line that colors the whole production — not just the script, but the moody cinematography, which is oppressively dark and, often, peeking in from the next room or from outside as if observing someone else’s pain. Grief is also a defining quality of Ralph, whose only son died of cancer a few years ago. He and his wife, Mare Winningham’s Jeannie, are shadows of their former selves, but their marriage has survived and they have an easy rapport that adds some needed warmth to the miniseries.
Mendelsohn is particularly strong in “The Outsider,” as Ralph’s emotions dictate his decisions more than he’d like; in required therapy sessions after a shooting, Mendelsohn evokes the strong defenses a man like Ralph has had to establish so he won’t become despondent. At points, the anguish striking the town seems like it’s all there as a challenge solely to him — that this is a hero’s journey into the source of his deepest heartbreak. Mendelsohn is surrounded by a sturdy supporting cast, which includes Julianne Nicholson as Maitland’s angry wife and Bill Camp as Maitland’s attorney. Bateman, who also directs the first two episodes, is well-cast as an ambiguous perp, and he has one quite moving scene with Mendelsohn as he sits in jail. But Mendelsohn is the focus, along with the perfectly pitched Erivo — they’re at opposite poles of the story, as his deeply personal desire for an answer overlaps with her sweet eccentricities and her openness to the invisible.
If you can’t tell by now, “The Outsider” is a largely downcast affair, not too unlike the first season of “True Detective,” another HBO crime show that veers into grim areas. But it’s a compelling lament, one that has its feet on the ground as it reaches into the beyond.
Starring: Ben Mendelsohn, Bill Camp, Mare Winningham, Julianne Nicholson, Cynthia Erivo, Jason Bateman, Jeremy Bobb, Paddy Considine, Michael Esper, Yul Vazquez
Two episodes Sunday night, 9-10 and 10-11