L-R Cynthia Erivo, Ben Mendelsohn in HBO's "The Outsider"

REVIEW: The Outsider- HBO Series Gives Us One of The Best Black Woman Characters on TV This Year

REVIEW Streaming TV

Former child actor Jason Bateman who has done solid work on impeccable projects such as Arrested Development and Ozark, continues that streak in the HBO series The Outsider. Bateman plays Terry Maitland, a successful businessman, husband, and father of two girls who also makes time to coach the kids baseball. Though he doesn’t stay at the center of the story over all episodes, it’s this character who serves as the catalyst for all of the action.

When the body of a teenaged boy is discovered, apparently sexually assaulted and murdered, witnesses lead the police to Bateman’s character, Maitland. Interest and intrigue is immediately piqued as Maitland seems the unlikeliest of perpetrators.

Though the past four decades have brought the public a parade of cold blooded, sexually sadistic murders committed by fairly good looking, personable family men who blended seamlessly into their respective communities, the public is still in denial at the possibility such a character exists; sometimes without reason. The Outsider plays on this staunch refusal of the public to embrace this truth.

Great writing, a riveting mystery story, and noteworthy performances by Ben Mendhelson (Bloodline, Animal Kingdom) as lead detective Ralph Anderson, Mare Winningham (The Affair) as Ralph’s steadfast wife Joanie, Yul Vazquez (Russian Doll), and Paddy Considine (Peaky Blinders) make the the ten-episode thriller a thoroughly satisfying binge watch.

After Maitland’s arrest and court appearance directly leads to another horrific tragedy, a wrench is thrown into the case. Another witness, in the form of a surveillance camera, forces law enforcement to question whether or not they collared the right guy. In fact, it makes it all but impossible to believe that they have. The problem is, other evidence makes it all but impossible to believe they haven’t.

 The situation becomes so confusing they call in outside help in the form of Holly Gibney, a private investigator who seems to be on the autism spectrum, blessed (or perhaps cursed) with extraordinary cognitive abilities. Holly is played with steady grace by Afro-British actress Cynthia Erivo, who has quickly distinguished herself in Hollywood in  a number of high profile films with racially diverse casts, including Widows and El Camino Royale. Holly has a reputation for being decidedly strange, yet masterfully effective.

Hollys gifts render her able to do things like instantly and accurately guess the height of a person or an office building; her mind a repository of random statistics about everyone and everything that has ever existed in the world. The depth and breadth of her grip on knowledge- facts as well as the apocryphal, allows her to quickly synthesize information and draw connections between seemingly disparate events and ideas. Even if those connections lead her to the land of the supernatural.

Based on a Stephen King penned tale, it’s no surprise there’s a supernatural element to The Outsider. The show bridges the suspension of disbelief by openly asking the cast (and by extension the audience), to open up its mind and believe that anything is possible.

Holly, whose savant-like intelligence renders her as much of an outsider as the potential murderer she chases, makes the entreaty. Evil, concludes Holly, is sometimes just its own independent spirit. The tragedy it causes comes without some sort of childhood trauma in the individual body who carries out its mission.

And yes, that evil can take the shape of someone who checks off many of the right boxes in life. Indeed, The Outsider’s boogeyman is a composite of guy next door homicidal maniacs like Dennis Raider (BTK), Ted Bundy, Wayne Williams, and John Wayne Gacy.

Holly is also one of the best characters played by a Black actress in a show with a racially diverse cast. Yes, she plays a cop and yes that has at this point become a stereotyped character for Black actors and actresses alike. However, Erivo’s Holly Gibney is character, not caricature.

Holly is both written and acted as a fully fleshed out human being, something taken for granted for male characters but often overlooked for women. Black women in particular bear the brunt of this misfortune the most. Only Native American-descended, disabled, and trans women characters are treated even more like afterthoughts.

Black characters are often assigned characters who act as proxy for the audience. They voice the questions about the plot or technical terms that cross an audience members’ minds as the story unfolds. The analysis, logic, and figuring out of solutions usually go to white characters. In The Outsider, Holly does some of the on the ground grunt work and does ask the questions but- she also answers them as well. That happens so rarely to Black women in diverse productions as to be almost groundbreaking here.

What is even more important, we get to know who Holly is. We get a glimpse of her life as a child with strange “gifts”, how she feels about herself, how she feels about the world. We learn how she sees some of the other characters, we see her affected by the events around her. That is as it should always be but too often is not when it comes to Black women.

Erivo’s Gibney travels from her home in Chicago to small town Georgia to help Ralph and his team of detectives untangle the deadly conundrum before them. Though from a brutish, gritty hometown, Erivo eschews the obvious “tough chick who’s been there and seen it all” mantle that too many actors reflexively grab from the actor’s toolbox when playing such a character.

Erivo also makes the wise and much more interesting choice to wholly embrace Holly’s outsider, misfit status rather than play her as broken bird or brash, invulnerable automaton. Erivo gives the audience a nuanced version of Holly who is mature about her outsider status and soberly but sensitively plays the cards she was dealt. At the same time, Holly also retains a childlike openness to possibility that serves her well in solving cases and finding clues that elude her cynical, battleworn law enforcement counterparts.

Despite a couple of stomach churning instances of misogynoir, the writers, and director make Holly something else we don’t see enough of with Black women characters; a likeable, relatable, sensitive character who we instinctively root for. We don’t like her because she’s one of the stars and thus we’re supposed to like her. The writing, directing, and acting naturally lead us there.

Where The Outsider falters with regard to Holly is her romance with fellow investigator Andy, who she meets during the course of the action. As played by Derek Cecil (House of Cards) Andy is almost instantly and unconditionally besotted with Holly. Knowing what we know about Holly’s emotionally bereft background, connected with anyone, it’s an instant emotional payoff for the audience as a whole.

It was nice to see a Black woman character loved without having to earn it through physical, emotional, and or psychological struggle, essentially pay for it through muling, or receive it despite being either a wholly reprehensible human being or a character the audience knows little about.

Where the pairing fails is mostly with the actress herself quite confoundingly. Erivo, in creating this relationship, is at her weakest. Maybe  it was the dramatic age difference between the characters (another emerging norm for Black actresses in diverse vehicles) but it seemed more that Erivo never quite made up her mind about what Andy is supposed to mean to Holly, and how Holly feels about him. At least her jarring physical standoffishness,at odds with the writing, comes off that way. Totally off-screen and completely implied, their love scene seemed ripped from 1950s TV.

Luckily, Holly’s romantic relationship doesn’t take up much of the story leaving a great deal for the audience to savor and enjoy.


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