‘The Outsider’ and ‘Pandemic’ bring our fears to TV

Rick Kogan
Chicago Tribune

There is so much to fear in this world. It is hard to escape.

It was so much simpler when Franklin D. Roosevelt, delivering his first inaugural address as president in 1933, said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Roosevelt had never watched TV and was thus not daily bombarded with its frightening images, whether of the fictional, all too real or relatively benign type (“Blizzard Watch”). Fostering our fears and fueling our collective sense of dread, TV delivers, and millions eagerly accept.

Consider two programs currently available for your viewing.

“The Outsider” is based on a novel by that master of horror and fear and unease. His name is, of course, Stephen King and this series premiered on HBO some weeks ago. In its four episodes to date (No. 5 airs Sunday) it has provided some terrific acting, a darkly distinctive visual style, a pile of bodies and plenty of reasons for bad dreams.

Actress Cynthia Erivo is an investigator in the HBO miniseries "The Outsider," a television adaptation of Stephen King's novel. (HBO)

It begins with the body of a dead young boy, found in the woods, bloody and abused. Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) begins to gather evidence and all of it points to the killer being his friend Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman, who directed the first two episodes), a husband, father and Little League coach. He is arrested, swears his innocence and offers very solid proof that he was not in town the day of the murder.

What follows, having seen the first four of the show’s 10 episodes, is captivating and, yes, frightening. Other people die, plenty of them and in all manner of ways, and things get especially enigmatic (some might think confusing), especially after special investigator Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo, an Academy Award nominee for her title role in “Harriet”) gets involved, making good if unnerving use her extrasensory-perception abilities. With each spooky step she appears to be guiding viewers onto a supernatural highway.

Having read the novel, I know where we are headed. Or think I do, because series creator Richard Price is nothing if not imaginative. The author of such fine novels as “The Wanderers” and “The Lush Life,” he’s been a creative force of such television shows as “The Night Of” and “The Deuce.” He wrote most this series’ episodes, getting artful aide from another acclaimed novelist, Dennis Lehane. Together and with others they have – so far – effectively combined the elements of a police procedural with a paranormal excursion.

They benefit greatly by fine acting from their cast, notably Mendelsohn; Julianne Nicholson as Terry’s wife Glory; Mare Winningham as Anderson’s wife; Bateman, who is also an executive producer; and Gibney who is, in a word, captivating.

They all are responsible for helping build a sense of foreboding, as is a nameless hooded character lurking at the edges of the action. Start watching and you are likely to get hooked until the end, even if you have to consult a dictionary for the definition of doppelganger, which is – I’m save you some time – “An apparition or double of a living person.”

While doppelgangers may the stuff of legend, pandemics are very real and Netflix provides “Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak,” a six-part streaming documentary series that arrives on the heels of the coronavirus, which is so dominating headlines and news flashes that is makes this series frighteningly relevant, if not wholly satisfying.

It begins with a search in a suspected mass 1918 grave site in Pennsylvania and the unsettling fact that World War I soldiers returning from battle helped spread the Spanish flu virus so widely that more than 100 million people died worldwide.

Though much of its focus in on the U.S., the program traverses the globe to explore the possible sources that could cause the next devastating influenza epidemic. In India, Vietnam, Guatemala, Lebanon, Egypt and the US/Mexico border, it examines worldwide healthcare preparations (or lack thereof) in place to combat diseases and explores what many are doing to try to prevent disaster.

The series is filled with facts, peppered with such alarming and chilling sentences as these:

“A future flu pandemic would likely kill hundreds of millions of people”

“All it would take is one person to spread a virus around the globe.”

“When we talk about another flu pandemic happening, it’s not a matter of if, but when.”

There is a palpable, and understandable, sense of urgency as the program punctuates the need to prepare against epidemics and explores the expensive quest to create a universal flu vaccine. This is powerfully captured in Jake Glanville, the founder of a biotech company called Distributed Bio. He and his colleagues are working to create just such a vaccine, a mission made more difficult because it is completely funded out of pocket.

He is among the show’s many heroes, who come in the shape of doctors and scientists battling against such foes as under-funding in research and health care, those of the vociferous anti-vaxxer movement, misinformation and political red-tape. It is sad to listen to Holly Goracke, the only doctor on her shift at a rural Oklahoma hospital, wonder if such small facilities as hers might be ignored in the face of a large-scale outbreak.

Yes, this series will fuel some of your fears. The coronavirus is not mentioned but given how frequently it peppers current news, it will surely be lurking ominously in your mind. The show is quite capably produced by Zero Point Zero Productions, known for making some of the shows for the late Anthony Bourdain. While it may smack a bit of fear mongering, it delivers much information and food for thought.

Whether you partake of these programs, well, that’s your call. But either might cause you to remember another of Stephen King’s bestsellers. “The Stand” gives us a planet in chaos after a strain of influenza is accidentally released and kills 99% of the world’s population. Published in 1978, the novel was made into a 1994 television miniseries starring, among many, Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald and Gary Sinise.

More than 19 million people watched each episode of the four-part series and there is another miniseries based on the book in the works, set to premiere later this year. Maybe you’ll watch it, adhering to something Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Do one thing every day that scares you,” having no idea that television would make that so, so easy.