HBO’s Outsider Shows Promise, Despite Mixing Fantasy with its Fiction
The Editor of The Boro* and I go back to the late 1980s when we were both young lawyers in the same New York City law firm. A few years ago we discovered that he’d returned and I’d moved to live in homes a few miles apart in the Pocono Mountains. Recently he asked me (OK I asked him) if I could review books and movies for The Boro. He said sure, but suggested streaming TV instead of movies. People sure do seem to stream a lot these days, though not just on TV. Some like me do most of their streaming on a PC or tablet (in my case, an 11-inch iPad Pro). The word “streaming” in this context means a continuous flow of data which can be paused, reversed and replayed by the viewer or listener — including not only TV shows, but also movies, music, books on tape, etc. “Streaming TV,” starting with shows like The Sopranos, was first associated with cable channels like HBO, but now applies to internet sources like Disney+ or Epix which can be played on TV via your cable provider. Also, older networks like CBS now tell viewers they can “stream” their favorite shows, like my beloved NCIS. Back on Earth, the word “stream” usually refers to a narrow river connected to other, larger bodies of water, although it could also refer to any continuous flow of liquid, air or gas. Or of writing — like a stream of reviews of, say, streaming TV. So welcome to Copeland’s Stream, which will review “TV” series (whether limited to a single season of episodes or are continuing for several seasons) with the proviso that if it’s in Copeland’s Stream it’s been deemed (by me) to be worth watching. For starters, let’s take a quick look backwards to two series which have recently ended but which are available for streaming: (1) Watchmen (HBO) is a bold extension of the original graphic novel about flawed superheroes from a world that looks like ours with several key differences. It’s an exercise in what’s now called “world building” which viewers may find enthralling — or an artificial waste of time. In my case, I could barely get through the first episode, but by the third episode I was hooked. (2) The Mandalorian (Disney+) is a Star Wars offshoot which reimagines old TV westerns like The Rifleman and puts them in a galaxy far, far away. I liked the format (self-contained shortish episodes) and thought that Episode 4 (directed by Bryce Dallas Howard) was excellent. Looking forward, The Outsider, which started last week on HBO, is based on a novel by Stephen King which reflects the author’s recent shift to more traditional mysteries (here, a police procedural set in Cherokee City, Georgia) which still retain a strong whiff of the supernatural. The first several episodes are written by Richard Price, a brilliant novelist (Clockers) and screenwriter (The Wire) whose heroes often have difficulty separating their sins from their virtues. So it’s no surprise that The Outsider starts with a brutal child-murder which may or may not have been committed by a local baseball coach based on overwhelming evidence of guilt and innocence. Add Jason Bateman, who (as in Ozark from Netflix) turns in a twofer tour de force as actor and director; Ben Mendelsohn (why are Australians so good at playing Americans?) and Cynthia Erivo (fresh off her star turn in Harriet) as two investigators with divergent methods and personalities; plus a supporting cast ranging from good to terrific (my favorite is Bill Camp as attorney Howard Salomon). So yes, in terms of the pedigree of its creators and cast, The Outsider is close to nonpareil. Based on the first three episodes, my main criticism is that some key plot devices are not realistic. To be clear, I’m not talking about the supernatural stuff that (to be fair) goes with the King Territory. I’m talking about stuff like the local police working closely with the alleged killer and his lawyer. I’m sorry, but the concept of main adversaries in a criminal investigation (which everyone agrees is likely to blow up into a high-damages civil suit) teaming up for the sake of truth and justice is not just fiction, it’s fantasy. Not Stephen King fantasy; just fantasy. When Copeland’s Stream returns, it should be time to consider whether The Outsider has lived up to its initial promise, and to review other series which are currently, ahem, upstream.
David Copeland lives in Tobyhanna. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and now, The Boro*.