Television

Adaptation of Stephen King's The Outsider Swings Wildly in Tones

Once the HBO series goes off-book, it goes off-track.

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The Outsider. HBO. Sunday, January 12, 9 p.m.

If you have recurring nightmares of a world populated by drooling zombie clones of Stephen King, a word of caution: They may not be dreams at all.  By my admittedly addled count, King published 20 books during the past decade, while a dozen were adapted into movies and nine more into TV shows. And that's not even counting King comic booksdolls, or the horde of mutant  Children Of The Corn spinoffs. (Still the nation weeps in rage at the false promise of 1992's Children Of The Corn II: The Final Sacrifice.) And,  oh my God, is there more to come.

To say that Hollywood's King-mania has been profligate and promiscuous is certainly not to say it's been all bad.  Hulu's miniseries adaptation 11.22.63, King's tale of time travelers on Lee Harvey Oswald's trail, made up in sheer, story-telling power, whatever it lacked in political acumen. AT&T's Audience Channel turned King's Mr. Mercedes trilogy into a riveting, post-modernist take on pulp detective novels. On the other hand, Spike's remake of The Mist was so lobotomizingly awful that it killed off the entire network.

The Outsider, the latest float in the King parade, lies somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Based on King's 2018 novel, it's a sort of kissing cousin to Mr. Mercedes (even borrowing a crossover character) in its blend of the horror and noir detective motifs. It's a serious piece of work, with talented writers like Richard Price and Dennis Lehane doing the adaptation. But the result is curiously—and annoyingly—uneven, as if different production crews took over on alternate days undoing one another's work.

The Outsider is yet another exploration of King's favorite theme, the murder of children as an expression of the dissolution of the American family—in this case literally. Each killing of a child triggers an explosion of revenge murders and grief-stricken suicides that obliterates an entire family unit. It starts with the savage assault on a little Oklahoma boy, whose sodomized body, covered with human bite marks, is found in the woods. (King's book was set in Oklahoma, but the show changes the scene to Georgia for the purely artistic reason that Georgia put up taxpayer subsidies for the production. The result is a murder mystery set in the heart of rural Dixie in which not a single character speaks with a Southern accent, typical of the schizoid cracks running through The Outsider.)

An obvious suspect emerges at once: Little League coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman, who also worked as a producer and director on the show). Maitland was seen offering the boy a ride, then emerging from the woods covered in blood. Eyewitnesses, security tapes and fingerprints weave a tapestry of evidence against Maitland so tight that local police chief Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn, Bloodline), now certain that his own baseball-playing son was molested, orders the coach arrested on the field during a championship game, raising local bloodlust to explosive levels.

But as the investigation continues, new witnesses and forensic evidence emerge to prove with equal certainty that Maitland was at a distant teachers' conference when the murder occurred and couldn't possibly have committed it. Anderson, baffled at seemingly irrefutable proof that the killer was two places at once, finds himself in an uneasy coalition with Maitland's defense attorney Howie Gold (Bill Camp, The Night Of)  and wife Glory (Julianne Nicholson, Masters Of Sex) to find a rational explanation for a thoroughly irrational dilemma.

The first two episodes of The Outsider (there are 10 in all) closely follow King's novel and are a model of what has made King so successful: His ability to keep one foot  grounded in recognizable reality while moving the other into parts unknown: vampires, werewolves, ESP, killer cars, gypsy-cursed pies. Richard Price's long familiarity with the urban cop genre in works like Clockers and The Wire pays dividends even in a small-town-Georgia setting as the investigation unfolds.

Even so, those episodes are marred by cinephile gimcrackery gone amok. Bateman is quite capable in his acting as a regular guy who finds himself unaccountably accused of monstrous crimes. But as a director, he seems to have taken the concept of noir far too literally. Nearly every conversation seems to take place in a room lit like an unfinished basement, sometimes to the point that you can only guess about what's happening and to whom.

And in the next two episodes, when Price's writing departs from King's story and Bateman's direction departs from the land of the sane, The Outsider goes badly off-track. As if the literal darkness of his photography isn't confusing enough, Bateman creates a metaphoric gloom by intercutting scenes too quickly and letting their audio bleed into one another, escalating the degree of incomprehensibility from "what the hell?" to "what the fuck?" Even worse, Price needlessly messes with the most interesting character in King's novel, the Mr. Mercedes crossover Holly Gibney. In the book, Gibney is a kind of accidental detective, a relative of a mass-murder victim whose obsessive-compulsive disorder and mild autism give her unexpected powers of concentration, and whose stuttering diffidence consistently leads her opponents to underestimate her. (She's played to perfection by Justine Lupe in the AT&T Mr. Mercedes shows.) She operates a one-person office in a small town in Ohio that specializes in tracing credit-card skippers, and she enters The Outsider story only because Anderson needs somebody local to track down a minor loose end in Dayton.

But in The Outsider, Gibney has mutated into a Chicago investigative prodigy whose near-superpowers make her come across as an arrogant bully rather than a broken waif. And there's simply no plausible explanation why the best detective in Chicago would agree to take on a minor angle of a case from Middle-of-Nowhere, Georgia. Predictably, the change of persona sets off ripples in the plot, which jarringly turns from rural gothic to urban grit in the blink of an eye. Cynthia Erivo, who plays Gibney here, is a talented actress (as she proved in the title role of Harriet Tubman), but her role in The Outsider is badly misconceived.

By the fourth episode (all that I watched), the wild ricocheting styles and showoff directorial stunts have badly distracted from both The Outsider's storytelling and its intellectual point, which is that the world's pedicide folktales, from Hansel and Gretel to Slenderman,  may reflect something deeper and more disturbing about human cultures than we want to contemplate. Whether the show can get back on track in its remaining episodes is a dubious proposition. If not, it certainly will have wasted excellent performances by Mendelsohn, who resonates with guilt and shame over the police chief's botched investigation, and Nicholson, who glows white-hot with rage over what happened to her husband. And its epitaph is likely to be found in another of King's works, the collection of novellas Different Seasons. A novelist character in that book mourns a failed short story: "It's not a very good story—its author was too busy listening to other voices to listen as closely as he should have to the one coming from inside."