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The Outsider

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The Outsider is a new HBO limited series, based on the 2018 novel of the same name by Stephen King. Four episodes out of ten have aired. The story centers on small town police detective Ralph Anderson, who thinks he’s got a child murderer dead to rights when he arrests beloved teacher and baseball coach Terry Maitland. Then evidence turns up that indisputably shows Terry in another town when the murder was committed, even as the forensic evidence against him piles up. Aided by investigator Holly Gibney, Ralph begins to realize that Terry’s case is the latest in a chain of similar murders, all with a similarly inexplicable contradiction at their core.

It’s a pretty good show, though I have to wonder whether it has enough story to sustain itself over ten episodes—a bane of a lot of recent limited series based on books. What I find most interesting about The Outsider, though, is how it plays with genre. The entire thing has clearly been written, designed, and shot to forcefully put the audience in mind of many other prestigious crime dramas of recent years, shows like True Detective, Big Little Lies, The Night Of. Everything down to the cast—which is stacked with luminaries of the genre like Ben Mendelsohn, Julianne Nicholson, and Bill Camp—and the color palette screams Prestige, not as a descriptor, but as a storytelling mode. It comes as no surprise when the characters all speak with a similar monotone, when shots are deliberately off-center and obscured, and when dialogue is superimposed on unrelated imagery. These are all tropes we’ve become familiar with, and they speak to certain topics and preoccupations.

But of course, all those trappings are a trick. The Outsider is not a crime drama, prestigious or otherwise, because the story it’s telling can’t be resolved through the tools of that genre. The show’s first episode firmly establishes this, first when it delivers an open-and-shut case against Terry—DNA, fingerprints, witnesses, surveillance footage—and then when it offers equally incontrovertible proof that he can’t be the killer. So there is simultaneously no need to investigate the murder any further, and no purpose in trying to untangle the mystery through the tools of rational investigation, because the facts of the case defy the laws of physics.

Viewers with even the smallest amount of genre reading protocols will have already guessed the type of supernatural menace stalking our heroes by the end of the third episode, and by the end of the fourth we have a pretty solid idea of how it operates, even as the characters continue to stumble in the dark. It reminds me a little of the way early X-Files episodes couched truly bonkers premises—alien abduction, demon possession, chupacabras—in the guise of a completely serious-minded police procedural. The Outsider delivers that same thrill of mismatched genres, but on steroids, because the tropes of the prestige crime drama are so much more stylized—and already, in themselves, almost a self-parody. It’s interesting, and weird, to watch the characters on the show insist that they are living in one genre, when we know their story belongs to another one—and also a metaphor for their refusal to acknowledge the encroachment of the monstrous into their lives, even as it comes for their loved ones.

It’s particularly weird because Stephen King is such an odd fit with the prestige label. King has been enjoying a bit of an on-screen renaissance, with film adaptations of IT, Pet Sematary, and Doctor Sleep, and TV versions of 11/22/63, Mr. Mercedes, and the anthology series Castle Rock all turning him into one of the hottest IPs in town. It was probably inevitable that someone would try to put the prestige drama gloss on his work, but anyone who is a fan of King (which, to be clear, is a bit like saying that someone is a fan of The Simpsons; it is possible to have read deeply into his bibliography while having zero overlap with other people who have done the same; personally, the last King book I read was Under the Dome, published in 2009) knows that despite the slightly cerebral reputation he’s developed in the later stages of his career, he is, at heart, a schlockmeister. And not only when he’s describing monsters and horrifying deaths. King loves the grotesque and the absurd, but even more than that, he loves the embarrassing. His writing is full of scatology and of noisy, squelchy bodily functions. His characters often have bizarre language tics that range from cutesy (“M.O.O.N. That spells Moon”) to simply inexplicable (“smucking” as both a descriptor of sex and an alternative to the f-word). His approach to sex is pitched at about the level of a thirteen-year-old boy. In fact, “thirteen-year-old boy” describes his sensibility pretty well, and it is genuinely fascinating to watch The Outsider try to paper over that fact with as many prestige drama tropes as it can muster. It’s even more fascinating when the story’s innate King-ishness nevertheless peeks through.

You see this, especially, in the character of Holly Gibney, a possibly-psychic, possibly-autistic savant who intuits connections based on seemingly no information, is able to tell the exact height of buildings just by glancing at them, can recall the lineup of every baseball game in the twentieth century, and knows the make and production history of every car passing through a traffic intersection. The unreality of such a character—and her unsuitability to the tone they were trying to strike with their show—must have occurred to the producers of The Outsider, because they cast Tony winner and Academy Award nominee Cynthia Erivo in the role, as if acknowledging that it would take no less than the gravitas of Harriet Tubman to make such a character feel grounded and believable. I’m happy for Erivo that she’s getting this kind of exposure, and she does her best to make Holly seem human and sympathetic. But I have to admit that the scenes with her nevertheless strain my patience. I keep thinking that Community skewered this type of character a decade ago. It might work in a Stephen King novel, but in a series like The Outsider, which reaches for emotional realism, if not the actual kind, she sticks out like a sore thumb, reminding us that the story as it was written, and the story as it is being presented to us, are two very different things.

What I’m saying is that The Outsider is a good series that is also fundamentally strange. I’m enjoying it for how weird it is that it keeps pretending not to be weird, and in anticipation of the moment when this high-wire act collapses. I’m not sure it could possibly end in a satisfying way, but I am curious to see how the show handles its inherently contradictory genres and storytelling modes, as its story approaches its conclusion.

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