During the past few weeks, many people have tried to explain the appeal of Outlander to me. It’s been hilarious to listen to them describe the premise with a straight face — a time-traveling romance about a woman with two husbands in two different centuries and also lots of very long sex scenes with a cute Scottish guy — but I understand why it’s popular. I also understand why Starz decided to adapt it: Outlander is its version of Game of Thrones, it already has a built-in group of loyal fans, and Starz needed to step up its original programming. Outlander isn’t a game-changing show for Starz, but a successful and faithful adaptation could do wonders for the network. And for the most part, Outlander gets it right.
When the show begins, Claire (Caitriona Balfe) is a World War II combat nurse who has just been reunited with her husband. While on vacation, she inexplicably jumps back in time to 1743, where she meets and reluctantly marries Jamie (Sam Heughan, aka the Internet’s new boyfriend). One of the most impressive things about Outlander is its flawless ability to jump between various genres. It is, at once, fantasy, history, and romance. It’s a period piece — in fact, Claire is a period piece inside of a different period piece. The pilot episode doesn’t immediately hook the viewer, but it gets interesting when, back in the 18th century, Claire experiences the requisite confusion and shell shock. It doesn’t help that she is immediately attacked by the villainous “Black Jack” Randall, who happens to look exactly like her 20th-century husband Frank (Tobias Menzie plays both characters, and he’s tremendous).
The show can be a little confusing at times — I suspect reading the novels would help; I haven’t gotten around to them yet — but never disorientingly so. The pilot episode, easily the worst of the six shown to critics, is mercilessly slow — to the extent that I had to watch it twice because I kept drifting off the first time. The voiceover is terrible, often unnecessary, and obnoxiously overbearing. It makes sense exposition-wise in the pilot, but later in the series, there are times when Claire is literally narrating things that we are watching happen, over-explaining as if talking to a child, and it’s frustratingly distracting. The music by Bear McCreary is wonderful at first but can get irritating. Claire and Jamie are well developed, but many of the side characters aren’t. Also, for the record, I am still awaiting all of these steamy Sam Heughan sex scenes that I was promised.
Despite my small problems with it, Outlander gets better as it goes on. The sixth episode is especially well done, and I predict it will be hailed as one of the better hours of television this year. I wish I could recommend just skipping to that one, but it’s a highly serialized show. It’s a surprising, brutal episode that is, nonetheless, on the right track. What is most interesting about Outlander, however, is the way it’s almost a gender-reversal of most TV dramas, specifically prestige dramas on premium networks. Even visually, it’s different: the camera seems to prefer to sexualize Jamie — shirtless and bloody and tortured Jamie! — instead of Claire.
As the rules dictate, Jamie is a Troubled Male With Demons, but this isn’t his story. Outlander is, without a doubt, about Claire. Claire is such a refreshing character. She is extremely well rounded, exhibiting all the very real qualities that exist within very real people. Claire is smart and strong but still scared, and is sometimes guided by pure emotion. She is — surprise! — a sexual being who takes the lead with her husband and makes no apologies. Sometimes she is saved by a man; sometimes she saves herself. In her present time, she’s a skilled nurse, which helps her to win over some of the 18th-century Scottish brutes as she tends to their wounds (Outlander can get pretty bloody). Claire is smart enough to know how to begin adjusting to this new (and highly misogynistic) location and time period, all while plotting how she can return to the life she knows and misses.
Outlander may not be a show for me, but it’s the best kind of Not For Me show in that it’s one that I can fully recognize is good — maybe not great, at least not yet, but definitely good. It hits the right sweet spots, especially if you’re a fan of historical fantasy and/or attractive people exchanging smoldering, teasing glances every few minutes. Its main characters are what make Outlander stand out, not only among Starz’s recent, middling attempts at original programming but also among the wider television landscape.