TV on Blu-ray Review: The Outsider - Season 1 (2020)

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Watching the great Ben Mendelsohn play a police detective still grieving the loss of his son to cancer in the HBO series The Outsider just weeks after he made me cry buckets of tears as a father trying to stay strong for the impending death of his daughter in the powerful Australian film Babyteeth got me thinking. Ben Mendelsohn's agent really needs to send him a script for a comedy. Still, for fans of brilliant character actors (like yours truly), Mendelsohn's misery is our gain. From anguish to skepticism to rage, whether it's in Animal Kingdom (2010) or Mississippi Grind or beyond, Ben Mendelsohn puts so much conflicting emotion into his performances that he completely pulls us into the mindset of his character, which we see play out over the course of ten riveting episodes in this HBO miniseries adaptation of the eponymous 2018 novel from Stephen King.

Assigned to solve the heinous slaying of a local eleven-year-old boy, Mendelsohn's Georgia detective Ralph Anderson is shocked when a plethora of evidence including eyewitness testimony, security camera footage, and DNA all points at his son's former Little League coach, Terry Maitland (a terrifically understated Jason Bateman). A well-respected high school English teacher and married father, the seeming betrayal of this veritable picture of clean-cut, white picket fence domesticity inspires fury in Anderson, who sends his colleagues out to make a very public arrest of Maitland in front of the entire community.

Requesting his lawyer (the always outstanding Bill Camp) and pleading his innocence, Maitland informs the detective that he wasn't even in town when the murder committed but at a teacher's conference roughly seventy miles away instead. Checking the security footage at the hotel and finding him there, Anderson finds himself completely baffled by how the man could be in two totally different places at once, which sends him on an odyssey towards the horrifically supernatural. Soon working alongside intuitive private investigator Holly Gibney (brought marvelously to life by Cynthia Erivo), the series evolves from a grim but gripping police procedural into something that could only come from the mind of Stephen King.

Adapted from King's work by series showrunner Richard Price, a novelist and screenwriter who penned such '80s classics as The Color of Money and Sea of Love before he wrote for TV's The Wire, The Night Of, and The Deuce, among others, the reason this show works as well as it does is because it's so firmly rooted in reality. We all know a Terry Maitland and a Ralph Anderson, as well as their supportive but equally complex wives (well played here by Julianne Nicholson and Mare Winningham) and the series never loses its grip on everyday contemporary life even when it heads into dicey, unexplainable supernatural territory. Though technically a work of science fiction, The Outsider ranks among the best King adaptations in its decision to endear us to its fully realized characters and let them be our guide into this new world before it drops us straight into the unknown. 

While the sudden, slightly abrupt ending doesn't entirely pay off on the incredibly thrilling series-long build-up involving the question of an evil spirit somehow inhabiting or attaching itself to a person, the rest of The Outsider is so insanely compelling — as is the staggeringly gifted cast — that it's well worth the watch. Addicting enough that I devoured all ten installments of The Outsider over the course of two days (quarantine, baby!), the opening pair of episodes directed by Jason Bateman are two of the strongest I've seen from HBO since the days of The Night Of.

Predictably, however, it does use the same grimy palette of saturated colors so indicative of prestige TV series that it's inspired articles all over the web and is also a main feature of Bateman's Netflix series Ozark. A definite bone of contention — given that it's now become a stylistic cliché for prestige offerings — when it comes to The Outsider, however, I am definitely fine with a Stephen King universe devoid of bright primary colors or high key lighting, especially considering the morose, haunting subject matter. 

Yet, despite this, far too frequently in the series — and especially in those middle episodes once it ventures beyond procedural territory — The Outsider's recurring lack of light makes it nearly impossible to see what is going on, no matter how many curtains you draw or the color settings you select for your television screen. While the brightest high power setting of "vivid" is undoubtedly the last way the craftsmen behind The Outsider would want viewers to watch this show, it was the only way I could even begin to make out what was happening in a few scenes, which is a major letdown from an aesthetic standpoint overall.

Still highly recommended nonetheless, the new box set of the HBO series — which, rumor has it, may return with another installment featuring Erivo's Gibney — arrives complete with short special features boasting interviews with King, Price, Mendelsohn (who also produced the series), Bateman, and the rest of the cast. Additionally providing a digital code so that you can stream the entire series in addition to playing the included Blu-rays, with the frequently aggrieved but superb Ben Mendelsohn as our guide, the show gives us a hair-raising opportunity to see where the wild things are outside while staying safely indoors (or so we think). 

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