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'The Outsider' review: Highly watchable adaptation of Stephen King's novel

Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo in HBO's "The

Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo in HBO's "The Outsider."  Credit: HBO/Bob Mahoney

SERIES "The Outsider"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO

 WHAT IT'S ABOUT Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn, "Captain Marvel") is a small-town detective grappling with a tragic past and an unbearable new case. A boy is brutally murdered, and the chief suspect is nice-guy family man Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) who is quickly collared for the crime. Of course, it's all too, too easy and when evidence demolishes the case, Anderson needs some help. He gets it in the form of Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo, "Harriet"), an eccentric cop who knows everything — literally. 

  This ten-parter is based on the 2018 Stephen King novel. 

MY SAY Stop me if you've heard this before, or on second thought, don't even bother. You've heard this before: Small town, gruesome murder, troubled detective, eccentric partner, strange clues, shocking outcome. 

   It's "True Detective 4!" 

   Superficial first impressions aside, "The Outsider" is not "TD4," but it's not not "TD4" either. HBO and Bateman (who also produced this) are only human, or at least one of them is, and the power of the orignal "TD" (2014) is simply too great to resist, not that HBO has tried to. From "The Night Of" ('16) to "Sharp Objects"  ('18), the ghost of "TD" lurks around HBO like Hamlet's poor father, still walking the nights, still looking for a captive audience. Like dear old dad, HBO has mostly succeeded, and mostly succeeds with "The Outsider," too. 

   As usual, or as required, the narrative is a Jenga block tower, neatly stacked with all the obvious elements, and just waiting to come tumbling down when the weak link is removed. That happens long before the end of Sunday's two-hour launch. 

  But what's unique here is the source material — King's novel — and the first-rate writer who has adapted it. Richard Price (who wrote "Night Of") didn't sign up to re-make "True Detective," and King has never re-made anything, nor would know how to if he tried. His genius is about subverting expectations, hardly in fulfilling them. Whole forests have been leveled for books built upon his abiding faith that the world is far stranger than you or I can possibly imagine. That's what viewers must take on faith here as well. 

   Some  glorious King doorstops do unfold in a shared universe bound by elements like "ka," which in fact is defined in "The Outsider" as a human double. There are lots of other meanings too, so that just might one more red herring of many. 

  Holly Gibney has also appeared in other King books, but when she arrives by the third episode of "The Outsider," it's as if the skies have at last opened, the sun has come out, and the fun can finally begin.  Price and Bateman (who also directs the first two episodes) have done a mostly fine job here, but their "Outsider" can be lugubrious. Erivo's Gibney is obviously many things, but lugubrious is not one of them.  

   Meanwhile, the Bateman we get in the opener is essentially the Batemen of "Ozark." As Maitland, he's the guy you want to like, with that boyish mop of hair and gentle voice masking the slow burn, as if he's some smoldering cigarette tossed from a car window. Mendelsohn's cop is mostly the same, only sadder, and not quite able to escape the impression that he's a Barney Fife who is overmatched and underqualified. It's left to Holly to save both him and a ten-part-not-at-all-a-reboot of "True Detective." 

 One last superficial impression: She will. Without a doubt.

 BOTTOM LINE Lugubrious, also highly watchable. 

 

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