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Cynthia Erivo Is the Saving Grace of HBO’s Muddled Stephen King Adaptation The Outsider

6 minute read

“I can tell you what day May 1st lands on 204 years from now faster than any computer on Earth,” Holly Gibney, a P.I. played by Harriet star Cynthia Erivo, stiffly informs two small-town Georgia cops who’ve come to offer her a case, in HBO’s The Outsider. “I can look at a skyscraper for two seconds from a speeding car and tell you within six inches how tall that building is. And I can not only recite the lyrics of every rock ‘n’ roll song ever written from 1954 to the present day, but I can tell you which Billboard chart position they were in week to week before they fell off completely. But you know what? I don’t listen to music because I don’t like it. Heights make me throw up. And if you ask me what date it is today I have to look at a calendar.”

The monologue would’ve made a strange, tantalizing cold open for this adaptation of the 2018 Stephen King novel. Delivered over beers, the awkward introduction marks the arrival of the story’s first distinctive character and draws a sharp contrast between her eccentricity and the beaten-down pragmatism of protagonist Ralph Anderson (an appropriately somber Ben Mendelsohn). Holly, who first appeared in King’s Bill Hodges trilogy, is a loner who speaks in clipped tones and wears androgynous button-downs tucked into chinos. She may be on the autism spectrum—not that any diagnosis would explain her genius or heightened sensitivity to the supernatural. Sadly, she doesn’t even enter the frame until the third of 10 episodes. By that point, viewers who don’t know the book might be ready to give up on this grim, slow, emotionally inert procedural.

Adapted by Richard Price, the author and screenwriter whose stellar resume of HBO crime dramas includes The Wire, The Night Of and most recently The Deuce, The Outsider lays out its premise in typical gritty-cop-show fashion. When the mangled body of an 11-year-old boy, Frankie Peterson, is discovered in the woods, Ralph launches a murder investigation. Almost immediately, he finds several eyewitnesses who point fingers at seemingly decent local teacher and baseball coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman); he’s even spotted staggering away from the crime scene with blood dripping from his mouth. Physical evidence and surveillance footage confirm these accounts, and Ralph—who’s haunted by the memory of his own dead son—stages a humiliating public arrest at one of the coach’s games.

This appears to be an open-and-shut case. “It’s like he wanted to be caught on tape,” Ralph marvels at one point. Except that Terry has no motive, no history of violence or cruelty toward children and even an airtight alibi. He was out of town at a conference on the day Frankie was killed and is able to track down video evidence that proves it. The conflicting footage pushes the case into the realm of the uncanny: How could Terry have literally been in two places at once?

That’s where Holly comes in, but not before we watch the Petersons and the Maitlands absorb the aftershocks of Frankie’s murder. Bodies pile up throughout the first two episodes, which will both air Jan. 12, as Ralph’s investigation leads him deeper into impossibility. And though Price’s dialogue is true to form, snappy yet understated (give or take a groan-worthy invocation of the Shakespeare chestnut, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”), the plot feels excessively muddled. Bateman, who directed the initial pair of episodes, further confuses things in a few scenes whose attempted artfulness has the apparently unintended effect of obscuring more than one death. The combination of dark lighting (if your TV doesn’t handle contrast well, prepare to squint), the recurring backdrop of a seedy strip club populated by listless dancers and a score that punctuates every other scene with portentous booms verges on prestige-crime self-parody.

Holly’s late arrival relegates everything that came before it to backstory—all of which could’ve been more efficiently conveyed in a handful of well-chosen flashbacks. It’s her observation that Terry seems to have a doppelgänger that propels the case beyond its brain-teasing beginnings, connecting Frankie’s death to similar child murders and creating space for thematic resonance. But more than that, Erivo—a Tony winner for The Color Purple, whose already-remarkable nascent screen career will continue with a role as Aretha Franklin in the upcoming season of National Geographic’s Genius—injects energy into the plodding scripts, giving viewers a unique, multifaceted second lead who’s worthy of our fascination. Her captivating Holly is more than just smart, twitchy and full of obscure knowledge; she’s sensitive and fragile, always struggling to earn the trust of fellow humans whose motivations she can read perfectly but with whom she has trouble making genuine connections.

Because only six episodes were made available for review, I can’t tell you whether Holly’s investigation into the string of murders, and the unsettling extent to which they overlap with bogeyman myths from across cultures, will eventually yield a finale that justifies this series’ many flaws. But I can float the possibility that it takes the show so long to get going thanks to some combination of an increasingly exhausting vogue, imported from Scandinavian noir, for slow, moody, overcomplicated detective stories and the streaming economy’s endless demand for content (last summer HBO announced plans to increase its output by 10% in 2020). Like so many of King’s mammoth tomes, The Outsider could easily have been distilled into a movie. Instead, we get a 10-episode slog through crime-drama cliché so oppressive, it threatens to overshadow Erivo’s brilliance.

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