Thursday, January 9, 2020

TV REVIEW: HBO's 'The Outsider'

HBO will premiere its new original drama series The Outsider on Sunday, January 12 at 9/8c. The drama stars Ben Mendelsohn, Cynthia Erivo, Bill Camp, Mare Winningham, Paddy Considine, Julianne Nicholson, Yul Vazquez, Jeremy Bobb, Marc Menchaca and Jason Bateman.

Read on for my thoughts on the new drama after screening its first three episodes.

HBO's new original drama series The Outsider based on the Stephen King novel wants the audience to question whether or not this is a mystery that we should be seeing and experiencing. That can be an alienating thought for a creative team to offer to a potential audience. This isn't exactly an easy show to watch. First of all, it continues the overall tend of prestige dramas turning off the lights to an extreme degree just to inflict a sense of horror within the unknown. And second, the framing deliberately wants to create a sense of all of this happening in the background of a world filled with vast voids and empty conversations. A lot of the time the camera is placed in one specific location and doesn't move even though the action the audience should be focusing on is happening in a completely different place. The camera may be set in the living room of the house but the couple who lives there are having a conversation in the kitchen that only has one cutout allowing the audience to see the discussion they are having. Or perhaps the camera starts from afar and slowly zooms in to reveal where a conversation is actually happening and who all is there experiencing it. It's an odd way to tell a story. It has the distinct impression of creating a full world. One that exists far beyond these initial characters. However, it may just be a stylistic flourish as well. One that wants to remove a sense of intimacy while only amplifying the horror of everything that is happening. It's a curious decision but one that the creative team is committed to maintaining. Emmy winner Jason Bateman sets the template in the first two episodes with subsequent directors also choosing to focus on specific details that could infer so much if the audience is willing to put in the work. But that is also a unique balance within this story. Sometimes, the show is painfully vague about what's going on in order to confuse the viewer. Other times, it has to be incredibly direct and obvious to the point where the audience sees things immediately and are furious with the characters for not acting accordingly. It's a frustrating concept that dooms a large portion of the proceedings.

The story itself starts with the murder of an 11-year-old boy. Lead detective Ralph Anderson (Emmy winner Ben Mendelsohn) makes a quick arrest of beloved citizen Terry Maitland (also Bateman) after collecting a solid pile of evidence from the crime scene and eyewitnesses. Of course, there has to be an immediate twist to provide a true sense of mystery that can span ten hours of content. That comes quickly thereafter when an equally compelling amount of evidence proves that Terry was out-of-town when this crime was committed. The facts are confounding to the local police. The case is seemingly growing weaker despite the increasing number of evidence they collect with each passing day. It's a murder mystery premise that wants to be very by-the-book and straight-forward. The police find the paneled van used for the abduction and quickly sweep it for evidence. An arrest is made in a public place to project a sense of confidence. However, it's clear that something potentially supernatural is going on here. The world is never quite right even though it only makes feint allusions to something more possibly going on in the initial hours. It's slow and methodical. It's not a particularly showy performance from Mendelsohn. Ralph needs answers to seemingly impossible questions. He has no room for ambiguity because he has already endured that in his personal life with the recent death of his own son. All of that has the perception of emotionally compromising him in this case. This Georgia town is so small that he is still the most competent investigator for the case though. As such, Ralph's marriage to Jeannie (Mare Winningham) never quite feels fully developed to the point where they lean on each other for support because they only have each other. Similarly, Terry's wife Glory (Julianne Nicholson) is full of righteous anger and very little else. It's a story that likes to keep its characters defined in certain ways without really providing them with a chance to grow. That makes for some boring television. Tony, Grammy and Daytime Emmy winner Cynthia Erivo turns up in the third episode after essentially being billed as the co-lead of the show alongside Mendelsohn. She brings more personality to this world as private investigator Holly Gibney than any of her fellow performers. However, that energy can only liven so much up.

That's the biggest problem at the heart of this series. It never puts the time or effort in to make the audience care about anything that is happening. If something supernatural is afoot in this Georgia town, it's unclear what that influence means for the future or how it is going to infect the lives of these characters. The first three episodes quickly kill off a number of characters in order to elevate the tension and uncertainty of this case. However, those moments don't land in an effective way. It's just an excuse to feel like something of significance is happening. The first two episodes will debut the same night on HBO. That is a good thing. They are still a slog to get through though. Erivo's arrival may be enough for people to stick around and see the third episode. However, that wasn't enough for me to keep going even though HBO sent out the first six episodes to critics for review. This is just a show with no real specificity to it. It doesn't quite know how to execute on its mission to be a mystery show that blends several different and possibly conflicting genres together. Ralph needs answers to be abundantly clear. Holly is open to the inexplicable because she views herself as such because she presents as neurologically atypical even though doctors can't explain how her brain processes the world. Two different versions of events are presented early on. The characters question them and try to wrap their heads around how it is all possible. Meanwhile, the audience will be catching details that could tease something significant. Or they could all just be nothing but fleeting teases of something monstrous to come. A portion of the audience may have the time and patience to sit through all of this hoping to find the reward at the end of the journey. Right now, it's just not evident why that would be the case. This is a terrific and talented ensemble. However, the execution is severely lacking without the ability to provide a reason to care about any of this in a significant or sustainable way. It's empty in a way that quickly becomes frustrating and annoying.