“The Outsider” is a new HBO drama with top-shelf talent in front of and behind the camera. It’s a crime story that uses a single horrifying case to extrapolate outwards a story about a society haunted by soul-sickness and, perhaps, a boundless and supernatural evil. And it pairs unlikely collaborators to crack the case.
In other words, it’s “True Detective” Season 4. Sort of.
A year after that HBO anthology aired its comeback season, the cabler returns to the world of lurid murder and hard-boiled cops with this new series. Using as its source material a Stephen King novel of the same title, “The Outsider” moves methodically through a story that seems at first both straightforward and un-King. A cop (Ben Mendelsohn) who’s grieving his own late son works to solve the case of a murdered boy; the evidence that it’s the town’s youth baseball coach (Jason Bateman) seems overwhelming, and it’s only episodes later that Mendelsohn’s sleuth begins doubting his own certitude. That’s where Cynthia Erivo, playing an intuitive private investigator with a rapid-fire brain, steps in to assist in finding the malign elements still at the story’s margins.
It sounds like pulp, and it seems to want to be; it shares all of “True Detective’s” elements except a guiding willingness to be fun. Replacing that sort of giddy indulgence in strangeness with dirgelike seriousness means the plot is slow-walked; we don’t even meet Erivo until the third episode. She doesn’t get much to do until still later. That the show refuses to be about what it’s about — that it’s a show about a sleuth with medium-like powers chasing down the forces of evil that insists on hard-boiled police noir to the point where the real story is on the margins — is a major impediment to spending time with it. If “The Outsider” doesn’t really care about the ways in which its story is new until fairly deep into its first season, why should we?
The series may have suffered from too many influences. Richard Price (of “The Night Of” and “The Wire”) adapts the work of King, guided by Bateman, supplementing his onscreen work by acting as executive producer and by directing the first two episodes. Bateman is the reigning Emmy best director champ for his work on “Ozark,” but this show indicates why his approach there is difficult to replicate. “Ozark’s” less-than-exhilarating visual scheme and bummer tone is brought to life by actors delivering wild and unhinged performances as people behaving against their best interests. Laura Linney and others enliven a show that’s otherwise turgid. Actors like Mendelsohn, Mare Winningham, and Bill Camp, all tremendously gifted but not “big” by nature, are not the types to go full “Ozark,” and Erivo — a stage star who’s become a somewhat recessive and difficult-to-know presence onscreen — doesn’t break out, either, despite her character’s unique role in the story.
In all, “The Outsider” doesn’t rival “True Detective” for jolts or for insights about the human condition or the impulses that bring about crime. And its slow pace emphasizes the absence of what crime dramas can do so well. The stakes here seem to be massive; gradually, it becomes clear that an epidemic of darkness is overtaking many. But getting there, with so little in the way of character or freshness of tone, simply exhausts even an interested viewer.