DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new HBO series "The Outsider," based on a suspense novel by Stephen King, stars Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo as detectives trying to solve a murder that seems to defy all logic. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says this adaptation takes the master of horror's work in an unexpected direction.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If you made a list of the most important figures in pop culture over the last half century, near the top you'd have to put Stephen King since publishing his first novel, "Carrie," in 1974, the 72 year old writer has been a literary juggernaut whose books have spawned 26 TV shows and 47 movies. Still going strong, King is best-known for exploring and tapping into that most primal of emotions, fear - fear of madness and menstrual blood, fear of killer clowns and demonic pets, fear of addiction and entrapment. Such fear takes the form of a slow-building dread in "The Outsider," the new 10-part HBO series based on King's 2018 novel of the same title. Though this adaptation is probably too well-heeled for its pulpy material, the show has a terrific plot hook, and once I made peace with its moody rhythms, I found myself hooked. I devoured the six hours available for preview in two nights.
"The Outsider" begins when the body of a murdered and sexually assaulted 11-year-old boy is found in the Georgia woods. The investigation is led by righteously angry police detective Ralph Anderson, who's mourning the recent death of his own teenage son. Ralph is played by grizzled Ben Mendelsohn, who my women friends tell me is a sex symbol, though I've merely thought of him as one of those superb Australian actors that Hollywood now prefers to their grizzled American counterparts. The evidence quickly leads Ralph to arrest Terry Maitland - that's Jason Bateman - a beloved local schoolteacher who coached Ralph's son in Little League.
The case against him seems open and shut. Witnesses put Terry at the scene. Video footage confirms it, as do the DNA samples. There's just one problem, a huge one. Other witnesses, backed by video footage, put Terry in a full room in another city at the time of the murder. Ralph begins to have doubts, and here, he expresses them to the ambitious local DA who wants to nail Terry to boost his own career.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OUTSIDER")
BEN MENDELSOHN: (As Ralph Anderson) If Terry Maitland is innocent...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Which he's not.
MENDELSOHN: (As Ralph Anderson) If he is, we're not done. This happens again...
JASON BATEMAN: (As Terry Maitland) How badly do you want to win, Kenneth?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I don't know, Ralph. How badly do you want to lose?
POWERS: Faced with a baffling enigma, Ralph enlists the help of a private eye - Holly Gibney, a spectrum-y (ph) savant of astonishing mental gifts. She's exceedingly well-played by British musician and actress Cynthia Erivo, who recently starred in the Harriet Tubman biopic. As Holly pursues leads to other cities and crimes, things get spookier and spookier.
Although "The Outsider" is no masterwork in a TV era when we expect them, it is a finely tooled series, with the trademark HBO luster, sharply elegant scripts by Richard Price and Dennis Lehane and excellent performances, including Julianne Nicholson as Terry's wife Glory, who's furious at what's happening to her husband; Mare Winningham as Ralph's sensible wife Jeannie, still shell shocked by the death of their son; and Derek Cecil as a good-hearted ex-cop who is smitten by Holly, a socially maladroit woman other men just find weird.
Bateman directed the first two episodes, and he lays down a slow, surprisingly mournful template. Where most thrillers and horror tales don't claim to be more than good, trashy fun, "The Outsider" takes its story seriously - so seriously, in fact, that some viewers may find it pretentious or exasperating. Me, I thought this approach made an interesting change. Rather than amp things up to make a shriek, the series slowly fuels our anxiety by taking time to make us care about the characters. Despite its lack of visual ambition, the show works similar terrain to the recent run of art-horror movies like "Suspiria," "Midsommar" and "The Lighthouse," all of which care less about making the audience scream in terror than about exploring what underlies the terror. Without giving anything away, I can tell you that "The Outsider" deals with grief and the horrors unleashed by grieving as well as the fear of contamination by uncontrollable forces, a fear that influences everything from our immigration policy to the way supermarkets put hand sanitizer by their doors.
In the process, "The Outsider" captures the quality that has always given King's work its seductive power. It draws the connection between our inner demons and the ones roaming out in the world.
BIANCULLI: John Powers is FRESH AIR's critic-at-large. He reviewed the new HBO series "The Outsider," based on a suspense novel by Stephen King.
On Monday's show, in the 1890s, Wilmington, N.C., had a thriving black middle class, a large black electorate and black representatives in local government. But that ended in 1898 with a bloody campaign of violence and intimidation by white supremacists. On the next FRESH AIR, our guest will be journalist David Zucchino. His new book is titled "Wilmington's Lie." Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUILLERMO KLEIN'S "MELODIA DE ARRABAL")
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUILLERMO KLEIN'S "MELODIA DE ARRABAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.