Midway through HBO’s new mystery/horror hybrid The Outsider, a character buys a half-dozen lamps at a hardware store, takes them out to the woods, and dumps them in a field. The series doesn’t make room for humor, but this is a very funny moment, albeit an unintentional one. It’s as if the people making The Outsider — an impressive group that includes Richard Price (The Wire, The Night Of) as lead writer and Emmy winner Jason Bateman as lead director — want to make abundantly clear what contempt they have for the concept of lighting.
The Outsider, based on the Stephen King novel, is a thematically dark story. In a small Midwest town, local cop Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) arrests beloved teacher and Little League coach Terry Maitland (Bateman again) for the brutal killing of a young boy. There is overwhelming evidence that Terry did this, but equally overwhelming evidence that he couldn’t have possibly done it. As the investigation unfolds and grows increasingly messy and violent, there are more child murders, suicides, shootings, and increasing hints that something more monstrous than man’s inhumanity to man is at work.
But it’s also literally a dark story. Scenes frequently play out in conditions close to pitch-blackness, making many story beats difficult to follow. There’s an attempted jump scare in a barn, for instance, and the only way I knew what the show was trying to do was the music choice and the reaction of the actor in the scene, because it was impossible to make out that something had appeared to scare him, let alone what that something was. And that’s one of many, many moments where the visibility is all but nonexistent. It’s as if cross-breeding the lead director of Ozark with the network that gave you “The Battle of Winterfell” produces a TV show that seems like it was filmed in a coal mine during an eclipse.
There’s long been a bias towards tonally dark stories as more fundamentally important, which is why so much television of the past 20 years has involved some combination of antiheroes, drug dealers, serial killers, and other folks you wouldn’t want to invite to birthday karaoke. But we’ve seen a spate of shows lately like this and Ozark (and, really, the bulk of Netflix’s dramas) that seem to treat literal darkness as a good in and of itself — or, at least, that are assembled on such high-end post-production equipment that the people involved don’t realize how goddamn hard it is to see parts of it.
But it’s not just its allergy to lighting that makes The Outsider difficult to follow. It’s that Bateman and some of the directors who follow him (including fellow Ozark vet Andrew Bernstein, Karyn Kusama, and Igor Martinovic) often choose the most confounding framing possible for moments set in brighter hours. Certain events are shot from several rooms away, or across the street. We can often be a minute or more into a scene before it’s clear where it’s taking place and who’s in it. Occasionally, the show’s various tics all come together for one particularly inexplicable moment. A significant character dies early on, and I only realized it near the start of the following episode when someone went to pick out their coffin, because the scene where that person suffers a fatal heart attack (or a stroke? an aneurysm? a ruptured appendix?) is filmed through a doorway late at night.
Some of these choices are no doubt meant to make the viewer feel as disoriented as Ralph and the other characters as the Maitland investigation proves more and more impossible to understand. The series opens with a collection of scenes presented out of order — Ralph and his men preparing to arrest Terry, intercut with Ralph first gathering all the damning evidence against him — as if Price and his collaborators need to prepare us for how confusing this case will become. But there’s putting your audience on edge and then there’s making a story more trouble to follow than it’s ultimately worth.
Though the circumstances of the murder quickly baffle Ralph and the other cops — particularly how there is video evidence of Terry being out of town at the time of the murder, even as multiple eyewitnesses and DNA samples link him directly to it — it takes Price a while to lean into the potential supernatural aspects of the tale, or to introduce Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), an eccentric private investigator who may have extra-normal gifts of her own(*).
(*) King introduced Holly in one of his other book series, which has been adapted (for DirecTV’s Audience Network) as Mr. Mercedes, where Justin Lupe from Succession plays the role.
Holly is perhaps on the autism spectrum, and speaks almost entirely in clear, declarative sentences. Her arrival in the third episode helps put certain aspects of the story into better focus, even as things get stranger. But good as Erivo is, the show with her remains mostly an unpleasant march. And the way the story plays out, the audience is able to get ahead of the characters about the true nature of what is really happening, which makes it frustrating to sit through the portions where Holly has to figure it out and convince Ralph and the others to believe her. The performers — also including Mare Winningham as Ralph’s wife, Julianne Nicholson as Terry’s wife, and The Night Of‘s Bill Camp as a local lawyer — are all strong, but in service of storytelling that doesn’t always deserve them. Imagine the more overheated aspects of True Detective, but with more blatant nods to demons and far less impressive visuals.
“I have no tolerance for the unexplainable,” Ralph says the first time Holly suggests an inhuman explanation for the murder. The Outsider will leave you with similar impatience for the indecipherable.
The Outsider premieres January 12th on HBO. I’ve seen the first six (of 10) episodes.