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Television

Review: In ‘The Outsider,’ Stephen King meets ‘The X-Files.’ And it works

Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo in HBO’s “The Outsider.”
Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo in HBO’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel “The Outsider.”
(Bob Mahoney / HBO)

Jason Bateman, America’s Sweetheart, takes an unexpected step into horror as a producer and director of, and actor in, “The Outsider,” a miniseries adaptation of the 2018 Stephen King novel premiering Sunday on HBO. Some fright fans may find it slow, and anyone not equipped with night-vision goggles will find it literally dark, but there’s a lot to like here, even for viewers temperamentally liable to give grim creepshows such as this a wide berth. (I prefer my Frankenstein with a side of Abbott and Costello.)

Bateman plays Terry Maitland, the nicest guy in Cherokee City, Ga. — the action has been moved from Oklahoma, presumably for the tax credits. He’s an English teacher, Little League coach, husband to wife Marcy (Julianne Nicholson), father to Jessa (Scarlett Blum) and Maya (Summer Fontana). One day, in the middle of a game, in front of his friends and everyone, he is arrested on suspicion of the rape, murder and mutilation of a neighborhood boy. Evidence says he did it, and yet equally convincing evidence puts him miles away at the time of the murder. How. Is. This. Possible?

Developed for TV by Richard Price, whose novels (“The Wanderers,” “Clockers”) and screen credits (“The Color of Money,” “The Wire,” “The Night Of,” which he co-created) are all distinctly demon-free, “The Outsider” proceeds in its early stages — six of 10 episodes were available for review — largely as a police procedural. Naturally, the authorities favor the incriminating evidence over the exculpatory. But circumstances make allies out of opposing teams and set them together, like an argumentative Scooby Gang, on a search for the truth.

Julianne Nicholson and child actor Scarlett Blum in “The Outsider.”
Julianne Nicholson, left, and Scarlett Blum are caught up in an uncanny murder mystery in HBO’s miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Outsider.”
(Bob Mahoney / HBO)

“I have no tolerance for the unexplainable,” says Det. Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn, appealingly low key), who is technically on leave after a line-of-duty shooting but still hunting for that explanation.

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“There are times when looking at a series of seemingly impossible yet distinctly connected events,” private investigator Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo) suggests to the Scoobys, “when the facts before you are so filled with uncanny coincidences that perhaps the first step to seeing things clearly is not to find a way to dismiss those facts but to expand your sense of what reality might entail.”

A character imported from King’s hard-boiled “Bill Hodges” trilogy, which came to television as the Audience series “Mr. Mercedes,” Holly is what consumers of media have learned to recognize as “on the spectrum,” or something beyond it. She sports a portfolio of phobias, OCD superstitions and social deficits, but she’s also hard to rattle and intensely focused, a human calculating machine cum encyclopedia. Maybe she is a little psychic too. Erivo, lately celebrated for her work as Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’ film “Harriet,” does not oversell the quirks. In the real world, she would be cleaning up on “Jeopardy!”

“She’s a full-tilt bull goose loony, but she’s damn good at what she does,” says Maitland’s lawyer, Howie Gold (Bill Camp), who has hired Holly. (“Bull goose loony” is a nod to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” trivia fans.) She is also a Mulder to Ralph’s discomfited, skeptical Scully, the person capable of believing what others never dream of in their philosophies. That there is little here that does not feel familiar is a feature more than a bug. People come to this stuff to be shocked, not to be surprised.

What’s most pleasant, if that’s the word, about “The Outsider” is its emphasis on classic ordinary-mortal shoe-leather investigation — no supercomputers or genius hackers getting results at warp speed, relatively little action even advanced by telephone. People go where they have to go to ask questions face to face. Things take time, though where King may go on for pages describing an interrogation, or any conversation at all, such exchanges are relatively to the point here, in the “Law & Order” mode.

View from behind of Ben Mendelsohn and Mare Winningham sitting on a stone bench in a cemetery in “The Outsider.”
Ben Mendelsohn and Mare Winningham in a scene from “The Outsider,” a Stephen King novel made into an HBO miniseries.
(Bob Mahoney / HBO)

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Price clears a lot of brush from the early chapters of the novel, as the case is being put together and its uncanny inconsistencies pile up. (There is some hopping around in time, and it’s not always immediately clear when we are.) Additionally, Price weeds out King’s compulsive pop-cultural citations and literary nods — including one, in the novel, to Bateman’s Netflix series “Ozark” — while such references as he provides himself tend to be amusingly antiquated. (“Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar?”) The time Price gains — well, there is tons of it to fill in any case — is well spent.

New scenes are in the spirit of the original, adding weight and texture to the story while remaining true to its supernatural biophysics. Characters are more dimensional than in the novel and more fluid in their relationships. Price has given Ralph some additional trauma — a son, who in King’s novel is away at camp, here is dead from cancer — which has affected his marriage and perhaps his decision-making. Others have been given more to do; the female characters especially profit from these additions. There is one entirely original invention: A security man (Derek Cecil) whom Holly meets early in her investigations, and who likes her, gives us new angles on her character and adds some highly necessary light, semi-romantic, almost comic relief.

King purists may cavil — they will have done a lot of caviling over the years — but these elaborations enrich the story and do help justify the series taking 10 hours to get done what “The X-Files” could accomplish in one. Even so, “The Outsider” rarely feels padded. Most everything moves the story forward, without waving a flag labeled “exposition.”

The production does drift into some arty cliches — dissonant strings and low frequency sound effects to create tension, chamber music to underscore an atrocity, creeping camera moves, shallow focus and, as mentioned, darkness (so much darkness). But, more often, “The Outsider” places its faith in people, and it pays off.

‘The Outsider’

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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