Bate-and-switch: how Jason Bateman learned to embrace his dark side

Charles Bramesco
Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Like all good mysteries, new HBO series The Outsider plays it stingy with the key information its early episodes slowly mete out. The showrunner Richard Price has built the script of his pilot so that we’re let in on the full premise piece by piece; when we’re first introduced to area man Terry Maitland, he’s helping out in the kitchen. He’s an unassuming person, well-liked around town as the supportive coach of the town Little League team. He’s a doting husband, a dutiful father and a friendly face in their rural community of Cherokee City, Georgia. It’s not until he’s arrested for the violent rape and murder of missing child Frank Peterson that we realize something might be off about him.

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The most convincing aspect of Terry’s regular-guyness is the fact that he’s portrayed by Jason Bateman, an actor who has spent the better part of his career playing variations on someone you’d be liable to run into at your regular bar, the neighborhood grocery store or the nearest bowling alley. He has made that everyman quality his stock-in-trade for over two decades, which is precisely why his recent pivot away from type has snuck up on viewers with such insidious effectiveness. For all of his convincing performances of normalcy, Bateman’s also capable of taking that one step further, and using that normalcy as a shield. He knows that the people least suspected often have the most to hide, and as of late, he’s excelled in jobs that illustrate what happens when that gets uncovered.

It sometimes feels like every professional move Bateman makes has been colored by the years he spent as Michael Bluth, the good son keeping the family of morally deficient real estate tycoons at the heart of Arrested Development together. The cult sitcom par excellence established Bateman as a reliable straight man during the 2000s, the lone island of sanity in the ocean of his parents and siblings’ self-involvement. He had a handsomeness in the non-intimidating register beloved of the entertainment industry, he knew how to deliver a punch line, and the public recognized him. That was more than good enough for Hollywood, which plugged his “average guy, slightly sardonic” routine into the impossible-to-keep-straight comic vehicles The Switch (the one where he inseminates an unwitting Jennifer Aniston) and The Change-Up (the one where he and Ryan Reynolds switch bodies after urinating into the same fountain).

But Michael Bluth had a penumbra to him. Over time, regular Arrested Development watchers learned that a less apparent form of narcissism motivated the character’s need to be the responsible one, and that he was just as flawed as the family to whom he always felt superior. A different sort of unsavoriness crept out of Bateman in 2007’s indie sleeper hit Juno, in which he assayed a cool suburban dad who assuages his dissatisfaction with his buttoned-up domestic life by flirting with a pregnant teenager. Bateman found that his casual exterior could successfully conceal a lot, and only within the past few years has he pushed that principle to its limits.

The Outsider follows the example of Netflix’s Emmy-favored series Ozark and Joel Edgerton’s film The Gift, exploring how the veneer of the ordinary can mask not just mild defects of personality, but more monstrous impulses. In Edgerton’s thriller, the bait-and-switch (or is that a Bate-and-switch?) comes with the reveal that while it would appear our man is being terrorized by an unstable psychopath from his past, in fact he created this villain through cruel bullying during their boyhood years. Bateman got in touch with his darker side again for Netflix as a financial adviser relocating to central Missouri after a money-laundering operation with a Mexican cartel goes belly-up. The show’s central fulcrum is the idea that this man couldn’t be further from a hardened criminal – he’s an accountant, for pete’s sake, and even Walter White was a science whiz – and yet he carries the capacity for evil all the same.

The duality of Bateman’s schtick validates the big question mark in the middle of The Outsider. The first two episodes present irrefutable evidence that Terry both did and did not do the crime of which he’s accused, leaving law enforcement baffled along with the rest of the townspeople and us at home. Bateman can be just unsettling enough to give him the aura of a guilty party, but at the same time affable enough to create doubt around that guilt. Those familiar with the Stephen King novel that forms the basis of the show know that a decisive fate awaits Terry Maitland, but for the time being, a bit of intelligent casting has made him an intriguingly unknowable quantity. Bateman’s neither the next-door neighbor nor the monster in the closet; he’s something halfway between the two, and all the more troubling for it.

  • The Outsider is available on HBO in the US and Sky Atlantic in the UK