The first hour of Outlander (Starz, Saturdays, 9 p.m. ET) may have viewers who haven't read the source material wondering exactly what kind of story it is--which can be a danger sign, or, as in this case, a good one.
Is it a supernatural story, because Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) finds herself spirited from 1945 to 1743 Scotland after coming across a druidic henge while on her second honeymoon? Is it historical fiction, because she finds herself taken captive by a Scottish clan at war with brutal English occupiers? Is it a romance, because Claire finds herself captivated by Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a soulful, roguish Scottie hottie who may do more to bring back the kilt than any TV love interest since Sex and the City's Trey MacDougal?
It turns out it's all of these things, which makes Outlander—whose premiere is already online if you can't wait for Saturday—an unusual combo even in an era of pop-culture genre mashups. But Claire herself suggests yet another description: it's a story, in a way, about traveling to another planet. "It was like landing on an alien world you'd only glimpsed through a telescope," she says, finding herself a 20th-century woman navigating a past she knows only from history books.
Certain things don’t change, however. Claire is whisked not just from one Scotland to an earlier one, but from the aftermath of one war to the midst of another. During WWII, we learn in flashback, Claire worked as a front-lines British army nurse while her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies, currently in The Honorable Woman), a soft-spoken academic, was in British Intelligence. The two “outlanders”--as the Scottish term the English--are vacationing up north to prepare to begin a family, and to try to find their way back to normal after years of horror.
The henge, however, has other ideas, and Outlander phase-shifts late in its first hour from a PBS-like production into a different kind of costume drama. After a dangerous run-in with a vicious Redcoat officer--who happens to look exactly like Frank (and is also played by Menzies)--she’s saved, but also made the prisoner (or “guest”) of the Scottish Clan MacKenzie. Her hosts/captors suspect she may be a spy, this curious Englishwoman with puzzling clothing (“What kind of corset is that?” a Scotswoman asks when seeing Claire’s 1940s bra) and an un-18th-century assertiveness--not to mention her knowledge of futuristic medical concepts like bacterial infection.
Claire is an outlander in more than one sense: an Englishwoman in a suspicious Scots clan, and a spirited woman in a patriarchal society. The show is based on a book series (which I haven’t read) by Diana Gabaldon and produced by Ronald D. Moore, who carries a sci-fi pedigree from Battlestar Galactica, but it doesn’t fuss much with the why-and-how of Claire’s time travel. Instead it settles into Claire’s involuntary exploration of the past--and Balfe makes a wry, infectiously engaging guide.
The result is the most promising show in years for Starz, which since Party Down’s glory days has focused on blood-heavy spectacles like Spartacus and Black Sails or morose antihero dramas like Boss and Magic City. But it’s also something different in the larger universe of pay-cable drama: an epic drama told from the standpoint of an optimistic, resourceful woman rather than brooding, demon-chasing men.
That changes a lot, starting with the sex. Like Game of Thrones, Outlander is conscious of rape as a weapon of war, but it’s neither graphic nor gratuitous in portraying it. (In general, there seems to be more of a safety net as to how far Outlander will go in depicting the worst in human behavior--sexual or otherwise--not that there aren’t some brutal scenes.)
But there’s also the consensual sex--beginning with the fact that it exists, and not just for the enjoyment of male characters (and viewers). A tryst between Claire and Frank in the first episode, in which he kneels eagerly to pleasure her first, feels like a declaration of sexual principles. And then we have Claire’s 18th-century hall pass Jamie, of the strapping arms and roughly scarred torso--sexposition, meet pecs-position!--who establishes his guy-who-gets-it bona fides when Claire finds him wrangling a feisty horse. “She’s just a girl with spirit is all,” he says. “That’s always a good thing.” (Philosophical question: can you cheat on a husband who hasn't been born yet?)
All this has raised the issue of whether men--or for that matter, women who are not already fans of the romance genre--will watch. Last week, Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson raised the hackles of some book fans by writing that Outlander’s credits, previewed in advance online, might scare off that audience with Bear McCreary’s plaintive highland-air theme song and the gauzy visuals of Stevie-Nicks-twirling druidesses.
I doubt Starz cares very much; the economics of cable mean a premium channel can do much better by targeting specific, underserved fans than trying to make something for everyone. The real problem with those credits is that they suggest a series way more misty and demure than Outlander actually is. This is a very writerly TV show--unfortunately, there's so much voiceover narration that it's sometimes like its own audiobook--but Claire is no starry-eyed poetic sap. She's direct, clear-eyed, and unafraid to tell off her gruff Scotsman captors with an exasperated "Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!,” my new expletive phrase of choice.
Good thing Claire is such good company, because after the enchanting first episode, the series wanders. Claire’s early focus is returning to “the stones” in hopes of returning home, but there’s no particular urgency. The series spends a lot of time luxuriating in the scenery and atmosphere, as if it’s meant to be binge-watched over a pot of tea on a rainy weekend at a bed and breakfast.
But once you accept, with Claire, that we may be sticking around for a while, Outlander becomes an intriguing kind of social drama, a study of a people under siege whose bristliness comes with a deep sense of honor. And the sixth episode, in which Claire again encounters Frank’s Redcoat doppelgänger, snaps the show into gear as it drives home the brutality of the occupation and the motivations of the rebelling clansfolk: it’s easily the series’ best episode yet.
It was also the last episode Starz offered for review. I haven’t read the source books, so I can offer no spoilers, though there are hints that Outlander is not nearly finished with its time-jumping convolutions. To a non-reader, it's not necessarily clear, half a dozen episodes in, what kind(s) of story Outlander will turn out to be. But there's enough to enjoy that you may not mind Claire taking her time and figuring it out.