The Big Picture
- Stephen King’s ability to create unique, detailed worlds makes his work well-suited for television adaptations.
- HBO’s adaptation of King’s novel The Outsider is one of the best horror projects in the network’s history.
- Despite being canceled after its first season, The Outsider was intended to have a Season 2 and could have explored other paranormal cases.
The work of author Stephen King has inspired some of the greatest films in cinematic history, providing inspiration for many talented filmmakers to go above and beyond the source material. One of King’s greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to create unique worlds that are packed with extensive detail; in fact, it’s often been a challenge for films based on King’s work to bring the same level of detail that was on the page. This is why King’s work is often best suited for television adaptations that can proceed at a gradual pace over the course of a serialized story. Despite being canceled after its first season, HBO’s adaptation of King’s novel The Outsider is one of the best horror projects in the programmer’s history.
When an insidious supernatural force edges its way into a seemingly straightforward investigation into the gruesome murder of a young boy, it leads a seasoned cop and an unorthodox investigator to question everything they believe in.
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What Is ‘The Outsider’ About?
The Outsider is based on King’s 2018 novel of the same name; while most of his best work was completed earlier in his career, The Outsider stood as a return to form for King, proving that he could frame his signature fantasy worldbuilding within the context of an investigative mystery story. The series follows the grizzled Cherokee City detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn), who suffers from alcoholism in the aftermath of the death of his son, Derek. Although he has grown cynical about the merits of his profession, Ralph is forced to head a criminal investigation when the young boy Frank Petersen is murdered. Frank’s mutilated body was found with severe bite marks, suggesting that his killer may not have been entirely human.
No vegetables, no dessert. Those are the rules!
The brilliance of The Outsider is that the series does not immediately announce its fantastical elements. Rather than overwhelming the viewer with details about demonic entities and ancient evils, showrunner Richard Price focuses on a very human story of grief and loss; similar to his underrated miniseries The Night Of, Price focuses on the minutiae of the investigative process. While the realism of this approach makes The Outsider even spookier, the case is compelling because the tragedy within Ralph’s life immediately generates empathy for his investigation. Solving Frank’s murder won’t bring Derek back, but it does allow Ralph to find a sense of justice that was absent from his son’s death.
Ralph is an effective protagonist because of his skepticism about the paranormal; he becomes an audience avatar who experiences the show’s fantastical elements at the same time that the viewer does. His logical, grounded perspective is an interesting change of pace compared to other performances in King adaptations. Ralph seems to resist the very idea that there is a larger force of evil at work, as he views Derek’s death as an unavoidable tragedy. However, The Outsider is able to slowly challenge Ralph’s perspective by conforming him with evidence that Frank’s death had something to do with the supernatural.
‘The Outsider’ Has a Fantastic Supporting Cast
While Mendelsohn’s scene-stealing performance is unquestionably one of the main reasons to watch the series, The Outsider has a stacked supporting cast filled with great character actors. As a result of the serialized construction of the story, The Outsider has the opportunity to flesh out its world in the lead-up to the inciting tragedy. There are deeply moving moments between Ralph and his wife Jeannie (Mare Winningham) that explore how the couple is navigating their marriage in the aftermath of Derek’s death. These moments, combined with scenes of Frank and his parents Joy (Claire Bronson) and Fred (Frank Deal), serve as a powerful reminder of how fleeting life is within King’s universe.
The series received a dramatic boost early on thanks to a fantastic guest performance by Jason Bateman, who also stepped behind the camera to direct the first two installments in the series. Bateman co-stars as Terry Maitland, Cherokee City’s beloved Little League coach, who finds himself charged with Frank’s murder due to seemingly indisputable evidence discovered at the crime scene. Although he proved with the underrated thriller The Gift and Ozark that he was capable of playing an antagonist, Bateman does a great job at generating empathy for a character accused of a crime he didn’t commit. While spending time in jail is painful in its own right, Terry is forced to deal with the social effects of the trial as the town that once adored him turns against him overnight.
However, The Outsider’s most memorable supporting character is certainly Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), a private investigator with advanced perceptive skills who becomes one of Ralph’s key allies within the investigation. Holly serves as the perfect gateway to The Outsider’s paranormal elements, as she can explain how the enigmatic spirit responsible for Frank’s murder has changed forms throughout history. While the overload of supernatural information could have felt like a drastic shift in tone compared to the grittiness of the show’s opening episode, Holly’s knowledge and practical approach to the demon’s history keep the show’s feet planted firmly in a version of reality. The Outsider ranks among the best King television adaptations because of its mastery of this difficult tonal balance.
‘The Outsider’ Was Supposed To Have a Season 2
Despite its faithful depiction of the events in the original novel, The Outsider was originally intended to be a multi-season series involving Holly’s investigations into other paranormal cases. Even though King indicated that a second season was coming, HBO decided to cancel The Outsider, effectively turning it into a miniseries. Sadly, The Outsider was not picked up and renewed by another network, leaving the finale’s mid-credit stinger scene teasing the spirit’s resurgence unresolved.
Although The Outsider was unfortunately not given the chance to extend into the epic series it could have been, it isn’t the only TV appearance of Holly Gibney onscreen. King’s Bill Hodges novel trilogy was adapted into the crime drama Mr. Mercedes, which featured Justine Lupe as a younger version of Holly, who solves crimes alongside the grizzled detective (Brendan Gleeson). While Lupe gives a charismatic performance, it’s unfortunate that Erivo wasn’t given the same opportunity to play the character over an extended period of time. While The Outsider tells a self-contained story and effectively wraps up Ralph’s character arc, it could have been the first chapter in a series of Holly-centric mysteries. With the success of King’s latest novel which is a standalone Holly novel, aptly titled Holly, here’s hoping we see Erivo return to the part soon.
The Outsider is streaming on Max.