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‘The Outsider’: How HBO’s Sleeper Hit Made the Boogeyman Into a Reality

Pairing a supernatural Stephen King mystery with one of TV's most realistic crime writers may sound illogical — but Richard Price will make you a believer.

The Outsider HBO Ben Mendelsohn Cynthia Erivo

Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo in “The Outsider”

Bob Mahoney/HBO

Can a gritty crime drama really ask viewers to believe in the boogeyman? “The Outsider” is about to find out.

“I hate stories in which on page seven the zombies are there, and by page eight everyone is going, ‘Oh, [sure], zombies.'” showrunner and executive producer Richard Price said in an interview with IndieWire. “It’s like, wait a minute — I don’t care if they’re a cop or a mailman, how do you get a normal person not only to believe in some crazy shit that’s not human — but act on it?”

The question lingers over Price’s blend of police procedural and supernatural thriller, as both the characters and audience have to be satisfied with answers based on the “crazy shit” Price is talking about. After five episodes setting up a mystery, the pivotal sixth entry in HBO’s Stephen King adaptation reveals how its confounding central mystery will be solved, and it ain’t the old-fashioned way. DNA evidence and eye witnesses won’t help the investigators — there’s a monster out there, and they have to play by its rules.

Everyone onscreen and off are told as much in one make-or-break scene. After weeks of casework, P.I. Holly Gibney (played by Cynthia Erivo) finally presents her findings to a frustrated team of cops, lawyers, and one traumatized widow. Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) has hit dead end after dead end in his quest to explain how Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) was involved in the brutal murder of a young boy. Contradictory evidence and shifting allegiances have created an uncrackable case for the local detectives, so Ralph, his colleagues, and Glory (Julianne Nicholson), Terry’s wife, have high hopes for this newcomer’s long-anticipated presentation.

But as the meticulous sleuth shares her conclusions, curiosity soon curdles into exasperation. Holly states a number of confusing but evident facts, including how “a human being cannot be in two realities at the same time,” before carefully segueing into polite requests — “expand your sense of what reality might entail” — and then she drops her truth bomb: The killer isn’t a man at all, but a “malevolent entity called El Coco” with supernatural shapeshifting abilities.

For a moment, the crowd is quiet. Ralph drops his head. Howie (Bill Camp) asks Glory if she wants to leave, but the befuddled spectator shakes him off. “I believe it’s real,” Holly says, and starts to lay out her plan for catching the “monster” — until Glory snaps. “Are you fucking kidding me?” she shouts, interrupting Holly. “This is your big plan to exonerate my husband? By going after the fucking boogeyman? Are you insane?”

In that moment, Richard Price feared his audience would react just as Glory did; resentful of being teased with grounded explanations and logical answers only to discover the prime suspect is “the fucking boogeyman.” Viewers are just as invested as Glory, so who could blame anyone who shouts at their TV, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

That may be why he added Glory’s outburst to the show, since it wasn’t in the book.

“The big challenge was, ‘OK, there’s a boogeyman out there,'” Price said in an interview with IndieWire. “If someone came in this room right now, sat down, and said, ‘Hey, I know this is going to sound crazy, but the boogeyman is real,’ what would it take for me to be convinced of that, and how long would it take me to get convinced of that?”

The Outsider HBO Julianne Nicholson Scarlett Blum

Julianne Nicholson and Scarlett Blum in “The Outsider”

Bob Mahoney/HBO

Price is a convincing writer. More than a few viewers of “The Night Of” were so enamored by the 2016 crime drama they thought it was a true crime series. His past TV work includes more gritty, grounded police procedurals like “The Wire” and “The Deuce.” None of those are true stories, but they’re all told with a recognizable verisimilitude.

Up until Holly’s explanation, “The Outsider” is, too. Sure, there’s an eerie guy in a hoodie loitering around town, and a nasty neck rash is spreading strange behavior, but the show’s path to solving these mysteries was through police work. Everything could be explained with facts and evidence, or “dumb cop shit” as Ralph sarcastically calls it. But once viewers find out the prime suspect in Price’s latest hard-boiled murder-mystery is a magical monster, “The Outsider” becomes something separate from Price’s past work and, more importantly, separate from what the audience might have assumed.

Not entirely realistic or overwhelmed by the supernatural, the series is a combination of two genres: a police procedural (like Price is known for writing) and a classic Stephen King frightfest.

Even with King’s name plastered on everything from trailers to the opening credits, there’s no guarantee audiences knew the latest HBO Sunday night drama was going to ask them to believe in the boogeyman, just as there’s no guarantee they knew Holly Gibney from King’s other books (or the former Audience Network series, “Mr. Mercedes”). Plus, King has written straight dramas — like “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Misery” or more recent throwback crime novels like “Joyland” and “The Colorado Kid” — and Price felt no obligation to recreate this novel beat-for-beat anyway.

“You assume no one knows anything; that this miniseries is its own thing,” Price said. “There’s no reference to ‘Mr. Mercedes.’ There’s no reference to Holly previously. There’s no reference to Stephen King, although that’s [going to be known]. It’s just a story and you just write it. The worst thing in the world is to write something assuming people know something that, in fact, they don’t. ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘I thought you read my other books, so you know where we are.’ It doesn’t work that way.”

So the question remains: How do you earn the audience’s trust without relying on influences outside the show? First, Price identified the characters representing two opposing mentalities: Holly is the believer, and Ralph is the skeptic, so Holly has to convince Ralph to believe in “el coco” just like Price has to convince the audience.

“Ralph is a guy who all he believes is through his job — stuff he can present to court for a conviction, and how do you convict the supernatural?” Price said. “So you prepare [the audience] by Ralph being Ralph. We see stuff Ralph doesn’t see, but we also have Holly as a counterpoint. Ralph is the age of reason, Holly is the age of faith. How do you get somebody to regress a bunch of centuries to an age of faith mentality? That struggle is the glide into where we’re going.”

Next, Price had to speed up the plot and slow down the big reveal. In King’s book, Holly doesn’t show up for quite a while, but Price knew he had to introduce her much sooner.

“You can’t wait half the thing to bring in the co-main character. You want to speed it up,” he said “A novel is chess. A teleplay is speed chess. Momentum is so essential to a screenplay in a way that it’s not to a novel.”

The Outsider Cynthia Eriva HBO Episode 6

Cynthia Erivo in “The Outsider”

Bob Mahoney / HBO

Price’s series eats up plot with voracity; what takes hundreds of pages in the novel is torn through in two episodes. But such efficiency necessitates reinvention. Yes, the first two episodes fly by with a compelling mix of intrigue and horror, but maintaining that pace would wrap up the story in four episodes instead of 10, and it could undercut any emotional ties to these flesh-and-blood characters.

“All we owe to the book is the spirit of the book,” Price said. “By speeding up, you gotta get rid of all the exposition, all the writing, because there’s no writing in a script; there’s no author, no narrator, no long journeys into the inner voice of the characters. You have to make everything two-dimensional — not in a negative way, but in a way a theatre is two-dimensional. […] So you have to start out with the murder of this child and end up with this climax; how you get there in a two-dimensional medium is going to invariably be different.”

Viewers who read the book will notice the changes right away. For one, Ralph’s son isn’t away at camp in the show — the child died, and the death gives an added charge to scenes between his father and his old baseball coach, Terry Maitland. Another significant change affects disgruntled detective Jack Hoskins (Marc Menchaca). In the book, he’s visited by the eponymous outsider when he’s given instructions on what to do next. But in the show, there’s no voice whispering in Jack’s ear or a person sitting next to him in his house. It’s all internalized, which allows for the chance that he could be hearing things or otherwise mentally impaired.

Until, that is, Episode 6 (“The One About the Yiddish Vampire”). After Holly makes her case for the boogeyman, Jack’s unseen demons come to terrifying life. As he’s getting out of the shower, Jack’s dead mother shows up and hurdles across the room to beat her son bloody. Ralph also behaves differently after hearing Holly’s case. Alone in his house, he starts talking to his dead son as if he’s still alive to hear him. These supernatural moments, both screamingly big and quietly small, are held back until Holly unveils the true nature of “The Outsider,” and they help transition the show out of one genre and into the next. (Price admits his show is made from two genres, but insists he never thought of them that way — “genres are an artificial construct.”)

Fans of the book likely noticed another significant change at the end of Episode 6, when Holly and Jack Hoskins taken an ominous drive together. That doesn’t happen in King’s novel, and it hints at more changes to come. There’s no telling if “The Outsider” will end like the book or on its own terms (further episodes have not been screened for critics), but Price is already planning for the future. He said he was already working on Season 2 when IndieWire spoke to him in January.

“It’s like pulling a rabbit out of a glass hat — of course there will be another [if HBO wants one],” Price said. “There’s no such thing as a series that, if it does well, they’re not going to want a second season.”

Through five episodes, “The Outsider” has grown in viewership with each passing week. If Price can get the audience to believe past Episode 6, they’ll be with him for another round.

“The Outsider” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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