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Stephen King's 'The Outsider' is a Thrilling, Grim Ride with an Impressive Cast
January 12, 2020  | By David Hinckley

The modern-day miniseries has turned into a steady and crowded home for extended crime dramas, and frankly, sometimes they feel exhausting.

HBO's The Outsider, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, is exhilarating.

That pleasure does not stem, we hasten to add, from its subject matter. The Outsider begins with the savage murder of an 11-year-old boy, and from the unsettling actions of the characters to the ominous music, the show often feels dark and troubling.

But it's terrific drama, one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King novel and a tribute to the skill of Richard Price, who wrote the first five episodes plus the finale of the 10-part series.

Crime miniseries can take a couple of different paths, one of which keeps viewers as bewildered as the law enforcement team about what really happened. That's how The Outsider plays it, and the first episode isn't half over before viewers will be figuratively leaning forward, trying to guess what they haven't yet seen.

On screen, Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) catches the case of young Frankie Peterson, after his body is found in the woods. Ralph and his wife Jeannie (Mare Winningham) recently suffered a tragedy of their own, which adds an emotional dimension to the investigation.

To his considerable surprise, Anderson finds the case coming together in textbook fashion. Local baseball coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman, who is also one of the directors of the series) seems to have left such a blatant trail of evidence that a school crossing guard could nab him.

So Anderson makes a showboat arrest before he starts to see a few troubling pieces of the case that don't quite fit.

Anderson is under pressure to close the sensational case, however, particularly from district attorney William Samuels (Michael Esper), who thinks it will give his next election campaign a boost. So Anderson must figure out what to do with the loose ends, and that seemingly mundane process expands into a disturbingly tangled marathon.

The single, most significant difference between filming crime stories as a traditional two-hour movie and stretching them out into a multi-week miniseries is that details and secondary characters get much more attention.

These can feel like filler or like great little tales of their own, and with The Outsider, at least in the beginning, it's the latter.

For instance, we get to watch the impact of the case on the women whose lives it changes. That includes Frankie's mother Joy (Claire Bronson) and Terry's wife Glory (Julianne Nicholson).

We get several extended shots of DNA evidence being collected or processed, which we can take or leave, but we also get a lot of Terry's fascinating attorney Howie Gold (Bill Camp), which is good news. 
Equally gratifying, we get time with Alec Pelley (Jeremy Bobb), a private eye hired by Camp, and then Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), another private eye hired by Pelley.

King fans will recognize Gibney's character – though it's a different actress – from King's Bill Hodges trilogy, which has been adapted into the fine series Mr. Mercedes on Audience.

What King does best, of course, is suspense, and The Outsider simmers and bubbles with suspense, as everyone, including the viewer wonders who is lying, or where the truth has been bent and reshaped.

Starting with a double episode this Sunday, The Outsider offers a good campfire tale around which to pass some cold winter nights.

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