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Appealing 'Outlander' follows time-traveling romance

Starz

By Chloe Gilke, Daily Arts Writer
Published August 6, 2014

The Starz network doesn’t have a built-in following like HBO or FX, but its newest offering, “Outlander,” will surely bring new fans and acclaim. Like that other popular cable show, “Outlander” is a vaguely historical drama punctuated by spilled guts and unbuttoned pants, and is based off a beloved series of novels. But “Outlander” is much more than “Game of Thrones” lite, and it manages to hook viewers (or, at least, this enthusiastic viewer) with a single episode.

“Outlander” follows charming World War II nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe, “Now You See Me”). Claire and her husband Frank travel from England to the Scottish countryside for a “second honeymoon” to try and rebuild their marriage after years at war. Claire loves Frank, but at this point, they struggle connecting outside the bedroom. The premise is solid, and characters are well-established within the first few minutes. Claire is immediately likeable, independent and strong-willed, and Frank is kind, if a little oblivious.

Upon arriving at the highlands, Frank plans some charming couples activities for himself and Claire — sex in a ruined castle, sex in a rickety bed. Fans of Diana Gabaldon’s racy romance novels will find plenty of well-adapted material here. The sensual material never feels gratuitous though. A palm reader tells Claire that her “husband is n’er likely to stray far from her bed,” so we’re supposed to accept it as part of her character. Without getting too graphic, one especially refreshing element of these scenes is that the female body isn’t displayed just for male pleasure. It’s something that Claire enjoys, and her way of dealing with the strain of years spent away from her husband.

“Outlander” also does a fantastic job of introducing the mystical world the characters inhabit. In the show, folk religion is mysterious but benevolent, and is a significant presence from the beginning. Claire has an encounter with the aforementioned palm reader, where she learns that her hand’s marriage line is forked and her tea leaves convey conflicting signs. Claire and Frank happen to be in town during a pagan festival, and Frank runs into a creeping spectre on the street. The ethereal beauty of the Scottish highlands is certainly part of this characterization. Although Frank and Claire visit the country in 1945, it’s almost like the setting is timeless.

“Outlander” takes its time in developing its story, and it isn’t until forty minutes through the episode that Claire picks a fated flower and travels to the 18th century. From then on, though, the action flows freely. Claire meets a redcoat who looks just like Frank, and happens upon a group of strangers led by the handsome Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan, “A Princess for Christmas”). Balfe and Heughan have electric chemistry, and Jamie is an appealing, scrappy romantic lead. The show is utterly unafraid of its romance novel roots, and I mean that as the highest compliment. When a windswept Claire dresses her good looking, shirtless companion’s wound, locking eyes with him for just a moment, you can almost hear the sighs of a thousand housewives.

Yes, “Outlander” is chasing that female viewer demographic, but it’s not just for moms and Nicholas Sparks. Showrunner Ronald D. Moore is a master of gorgeous science fiction (see: “Battlestar Galactica”), and his vision is stunning. The cinematography is top-notch, and the charismatic Scottish highlands are almost as beautiful as Jamie Fraser himself. The music, composed by fellow “BSG” alum Bear McCreary is romantic and searing, and scores every scene perfectly. The actors, although mostly newcomers, are well-cast and talented. “Outlander” is well-written, and the dialogue is never heavy-handed. With such a fine pedigree, it’s unfair to blindly classify “Outlander” as a “chick show.” There’s exciting storytelling and great characters, which doesn’t have to be gendered.

This is only the beginning for “Outlander,” and the remainder of its 16-episode season is sure to bring more surprises and delight. My only complaint about this episode was that the first two thirds are so slow in comparison to the ending, but it’s a bold move for a show to begin with an eye toward quiet characterization. “Outlander” enjoyed a confident start, and will hopefully follow through on its promise in the coming weeks.