The HBO drama from Richard Price based on Stephen King's 2018 novel starts off great, But problems begin to emerge with Episode 4. "This is the first HBO season I can remember with the definitive Netflix drama problem: You can always feel it overstretching itself," says Darren Franich. "This is a 10-episode season, and that’s just too long. Considine’s hangdog character has some larger part to play, which means he gets one sequence per episode of melancholy glowering. Holly picks up the investigative baton in episode 3, leaving Ralph with nothing to do. A shadowman in a hoodie keeps appearing, with a creeping tension that edges toward parody. You keep waiting to get to, like, the second half of any X-Files, when everyone besides Scully figures out something weird is happening. That moment takes The Outsider six episodes."
The Outsider is darkly engrossing -- a horror show dressed up as a detective show, or maybe the other way around: "Like the book on which it’s based, it’s both a whodunit that confounds all rationality and a ghost story that unfolds like a police procedural," says Jack Hamilton. "It likely won’t be for everyone: The series’ first two hours, in particular, are almost unbearably bleak, and its deliberate pacing and austere visual style lack the more sensationalist and showier trappings of noir-ish HBO hits like True Detective and Sharp Objects. But for those who stick with it—and you should—The Outsider offers terrific performances, beguiling yet careful storytelling, and no shortage of genuinely terrifying moments." He adds: "The Outsider might be a tad too dark and too weird to become HBO’s next breakout hit, but for a January watch it’s both fittingly chilling and cozily seductive—not unlike curling up with a good book."
The Outsider should be better than it is, but it comes across like a Netflix series: "Maybe the problem is that The Outsider, developed and written for TV by Richard Price, stretches the premise too far in an attempt to make certain it passes the HBO sniff test as passably prestige television," says Hank Stuever. "Instead, in some sick way, The Outsider seems like HBO’s sly imitation of a Netflix series — you know, all those shows that are just sorta good? Not so bad? Could have been better?"
The Outsider is one of the best Stephen King adaptations in years: "The Outsider works," says Randall Colburn. "Like any good King adapter, Price hews close to King’s original plot while relying on his own strengths to give the world an evocative visual palette and characters that feel truly alive within it. 2019 was a rough one for fans of the author—It Chapter 2, In The Tall Grass, and Pet Sematary were all critical duds—so fingers crossed that this bodes well for the year ahead, which promises new adaptations of The Stand, Lisey’s Story, and, believe it or not, The Dark Tower."
The Outsider isn't good at combining a Stephen King supernatural stories with a crime drama: "I haven’t read King’s novel — adapted here by Richard Price, co-writer of The Night Of — and at this point, I’m going out of my way to avoid the details of the book’s plot, so it’s impossible for me to say how faithful The Outsider is to its source material," says Jen Chaney. "But I can say that what starts off as a relatively standard, well-executed crime drama eventually veers into more supernatural, King-style territory, and the two tones don’t necessarily mix well."
The Outsider may be suffering from having too many influences: "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," says Daniel D'Addario. "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 first two episodes are marred by cinephile gimcrackery gone amok: Jason Bateman is "quite capable in his acting as a regular guy who finds himself unaccountably accused of monstrous crimes," says Glenn Garvin. "But as a director, he seems to have taken the concept of noir far too literally. Nearly every conversation seems to take place in a room lit like an unfinished basement, sometimes to the point that you can only guess about what's happening and to whom."
The Outsider is better than it should be: HBO’s 10-episode series is still hampered by a few of the original story’s trappings, but its author knows better than to take his audience’s trust for granted.
Jason Bateman used The Shining as inspiration for his Outsider directing work: "I was trying for The Shining, in that there's a certain kind of horror that exists in some of Stephen King's stories, and then there's a certain kind of dread that exists in others,” said Bateman. “This show aligns best, I think, with the dread and impending doom feel of The Shining, and with the intense kind of atmosphere that was in The Shining. I'm also a big Kubrick fan, and just composition-wise with camera and lighting and music, that film was a huge inspiration for me.”