Of all the scenes laid out over the first six hours of The Outsider, a new HBO adaptation debuting Sunday of the 2018 Stephen King novel, nothing quite matches the chills of the very first scene. Slowly, scored by piano music, drone shots capture a generic American landscape: churches and intersections, cherry blossoms and abandoned railroads. When the camera reaches ground level, it follows a man walking his dog through a parking lot and dips underneath a van; as it reemerges on the other side of the vehicle, it reveals that blood has seeped out from the passenger-side door.
The moment is potent not for what it reveals, but for what it doesn’t. A single visual prompts a flurry of questions, and a stirring of the viewer’s imagination. This is what King’s novels do at their height: They balance the heft of realism—addiction, violence, rage, hatred—with the thrill of the unknown. The interplay between make-believe horrors and real ones, what King called the “danse macabre” in his 1981 treatise on horror of the same name, probes the exact spot between the conscious and subconscious minds where fear is at its most ungovernable. With producers rushing to adapt his work for film and television at a higher clip than ever, their ability to find this equilibrium often marks the difference between failure and success.
The main problem with The Outsider, which seems to feel much more comfortable as a moodily naturalistic crime drama than as a parser of things that go bump in the night, is that the balance is off. The 10-episode drama is created and largely written by Richard Price, the novelist (Clockers, The Wanderers) and screenwriter whose résumé includes a string of prestigious HBO series (The Wire, The Deuce, The Night Of) and not a single previous foray into horror. This might be why, especially in its superb first two episodes, The Outsider feels like an elegantly bleak procedural—and why, the minute the series has to contend with inexplicable phenomena, it unravels. If a series can’t convince itself that it exists within a realm where anything is possible, how are viewers supposed to fall in step?
The series has much to like, especially early on. The first two episodes are directed by Jason Bateman, an executive producer on the show, who also plays Terry Maitland, a Little League coach in a small Georgia town who’s implicated in the horrific murder of a boy.* The superlative Ben Mendelsohn plays Ralph Anderson, a local detective who’s still grieving the death of his teenage son from cancer when he’s tasked with investigating the crime. As a character, Anderson is a skeptic to his core—he’s spent his career working with cold facts, leaving no space for conjecture or mystery. He triumphantly arrests Maitland in front of the whole town after several eyewitnesses and biological evidence provide what seems like definitive proof of the coach’s guilt. But Anderson is floored when similarly incontrovertible proof corroborates Maitland’s claim that he was out of town at the time of the murder.
The question of how someone could be in two places at the same time, and whether Maitland has a double, is what compels viewers to keep watching. Bateman is strikingly good playing essentially two roles, the beleaguered model citizen and—in flashback—the eerie presence whom witnesses describe seeing with the boy shortly before his death. Painstakingly, Price and Bateman lay out the societal ramifications of Maitland’s arrest, even more so than they unpack the anger and grief (and dramatic potential) of the town losing a child in such devastating fashion. Maitland’s wife, Glory (the extraordinary Julianne Nicholson), vibrates with rage and powerlessness as her husband is taken away; her two daughters are forced to leave school after their father is arrested, and one starts to have unsettling nightmares about a man in her bedroom.
When The Outsider is documenting these naturalistic scenes of familial chaos, it’s compelling viewing. But the closer the series gets to considering what person or presence might actually be to blame, the more unmoored it gets. While horror and sci-fi can conjure spectacular scenes of uncanny and unimaginable occurrence, Price roots The Outsider in the realm of the physical, using oozing blisters and flesh ripped by broken glass to signify the incursion of an inexplicable force. The dance between the real and the unreal gets harder to maintain with the introduction of Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), a private investigator with the gifts of a savant and the personal foibles of a trope. Erivo brings substantial humanity and complexity to Holly, but in positioning her as the imaginative Mulder to Anderson’s rational Scully, the show relies excessively on a single character to argue that monsters might actually exist.
Not all of this is the show’s fault—the book is similarly spotty. King’s decision to base his novel The Outsider in Oklahoma divorces it from the mystical, familiar energy of his Maine-set works, and the TV adaptation struggles to find any kind of power or significance in place at all. In 2013, Joshua Rothman argued in The New Yorker that King’s fantastical works, and their imaginative whimsy, felt “at odds with the rest of the serious-horror landscape.” Since then, prestige television has gotten bleaker and more dour, and The Outsider feels like an effort to fit into a cultural realm where true crime is king and darkness—metaphorical and literal—rules the day. (Coincidentally, in King’s novel, the police sift through Maitland’s hard drive and discover he’s a fan of Bateman’s joyless and washed-out heartland crime drama Ozark.)
If the show’s gritty realism feels like a missed opportunity, that’s because there’s so much to mine in the idea of the other, the outsider, the doppelgänger. The recent movies Us and Parasite both proved how deftly such themes can speak to societal inequality while also being deeply unsettling. But to have a work of ostensible horror that keeps undermining the ideas and conventions of the genre feels like an odd kind of compromise. The Outsider isn’t fully convinced that dark supernatural forces are more than frivolous fantasies, but it’s glumly reliant on them to sell a story anyway.
* This article originally misstated the setting of the TV adaptation of The Outsider as Oklahoma.