First Look/Last Look is a series in which I check out the pilot episodes of new TV shows. While I always hope this experiment will yield at least one show that I will want to add to my regular viewing—if not reviewing—schedule, I’m not holding my breath. Call me pessimistic, but, in most cases, I expect my first look to also be my last.
Since the STARZ network began offering original programming in 2007, it has struggled to make any kind of splash—critically or ratings-wise—in the increasingly crowded television landscape. The best of its serious dramas (like 2011-2012's promising-but-flawed Boss), and the best of its comedies (like 2009-2010's Party Down) alike have failed to find much of an audience. (To date, the network's sword-and-sandles series Spartacus is the only STARZ show to survive more than two seasons.)
These things are hard to predict, but if I were a betting man (which I am), I'd look for the network to find its first bonafide mainstream hit in Outlander, the new series from executive producer Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica), based on a bestselling series of historical fantasy novels by Diana Gabaldon. Judging from the pilot episode, Outlander—though far from perfect—has the potential to become a smash success, and to honorably help address the serious gender gap in genre television.
Outlander is the story of Claire Randall (the excellent Caitriona Balfe), a British woman in the 1940s. We first glimpse Claire shortly after the end of the Second World War, staring at a vase in a shop window and contemplating the building of a settled, domestic life. In voice-over she describes this as "seeing the life I wanted sitting in that window"—but then we flash back to more exciting life as an army nurse on the front lines, covered in blood and performing emergency surgery on a wounded soldier. Clearly smart, tough, and capable, we see Claire process the news that the war is over with a stunned look that could be relief, or could be regret: does she really want to return to a life of quiet domesticity?
This tension between domesticity and adventure—and between marriage and independence—is, I suspect, at the heart of Outlander. As it turns out, the life that vase represents is not in the cards for her. On a second-honeymoon in the Scottish highlands with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies), Claire stumbles into a magical ring of standing stones, and finds herself inexplicably transported back to 1743, where she falls in with burly and bekilted clansmen fighting British redcoats in the Jacobite uprisings.
On first glance it would be easy to dismiss Outlander as wish-fulfillment fantasy for women, but—even if that's all the show turns out to be—what's wrong with that? The vast majority of most genre television is fantasy fulfillment for men, and from this perspective alone Outlander provides a welcome alternative.
But there's a frankness, patience, and realism in the show that promises to elevate Outlander above the bodice-ripping romance one might suspect it to be from the premise. The pilot episode is slowly paced—it's a full 38 minutes before the time-travel element kicks in—which allows us time to get to know Claire and Frank, and for the show to establish its unique perspective before we have to deal with the high-concept premise. It is admirable, for example, that Frank is not established as a cartoonishly boring or dislikable foil to Claire's obviously-preferable life of adventure: he's a bit of a nerd, but Claire seems to genuinely love her husband, and they have what appears to be a richer and more fulfilling sex life than most British period dramas would acknowledge. (The sex scenes are romanticized, but they stand in welcome contrast to the male-gaze catering eroticism of most cable shows. A shot of a man selflessly going down on his wife shouldn't be revolutionary on television, for example, but its hard to think of many other examples…)
And, similarly, Claire shouldn't feel like such an unusual heroine, but she does. She's tough, she's smart, and she's strong-willed, but she's not a superhero. (Her nursing skills—and her too-convenient interest in medicinal herbs—come in very handy in the 18th century, but she's not a genius or an all-powerful warrior-woman: so far, Balfe manages to play strength and vulnerability in a convincing balance.) She's also stunningly beautiful—Balfe was once a Victoria's Secret model—but she's not a 20-year-old ingenue. (The actress is 35.) Claire feels, in short, like a real, grown-up woman, not an action-figure or an object of male fantasy: that makes her rare, and refreshing, and I suspect her character is going to resonate with a wide audience, male and female, who are tired of genre fictions populated with stock types.
I haven't read the novels, and based on the pilot episode alone it's hard to say where all of this is going. I assume we're going to be spending most—all?—of our time with the highlanders, and so far we don't know any more about them than Claire does. The only one who really makes an impression is the handsome Jamie (Sam Heughan), who—in a nice gender reversal—mostly functions as eye-candy, and is clearly being set up as a potential love-interest temptation for Claire. (Is there any better meet-cute than setting a dislocated shoulder by firelight for a hot guy in a kilt?) But the scenes in 1743 feel authentic, not overly romanticized, complete with appalling hygiene, terrifying medical practices, sexist attitudes, and the ever-present threat of violence. (The first person Claire "meets" in 1743—a little too fortuitously—is Frank's ancestor "Black Jack" Randall—also played by Menzies—a British captain who tries to rape her: whether this vision of her husband as a monster has deeper thematic importance for the show is one of the things I'm curious to discover.) The production values on Outlander are fantastic: visually it has a stunning (if sometimes too gauzy) aesthetic, helped considerably by a convincingly Celtic musical score from Galactica veteran Bear McCreary.
I do have a few substantial complaints about the show, most of which fall under the category—a perennial complaint of mine—of not trusting the audience. Things are spelled out that would best be inferred, and at one point the episode flashes back to information it doesn't trust us to remember from 15 minutes earlier. The biggest misstep—and I pray it lessens after the pilot—is how almost every scene is marred by unnecessary and unconvincing voice-over that sounds like Balfe reading from the novel. This is a common error of book-to-screen adaptations, but a potentially fatal one: the narration contributes almost nothing except information we'd be better off figuring out for ourselves, and it dispels tension and yanks us emotionally out of the immediacy of the scenes. If it keeps up throughout the series, this may be a deal-breaker for me.
But otherwise, I'm curious to see where Outlander goes: certainly, the quality of this pilot, and the strength of Balfe's performance, promise very good things to come. And, even if it turns out not to be for me, I find myself hoping this show succeeds: TV could use more genre series that not only have a strong female protagonist but also an authentically feminine point of view. Outlander may look like an old-fashioned bodice-ripper, but—based on this confident, compelling first episode—it may turn out to be groundbreaking television.
When Is It On?
Saturdays at 9/8c, on STARZ, premiering Saturday, August 9. The pilot episode is available to watch free at www.starz.com, and through on-demand services.
Will I Keep Watching?
Yes, unless the quality takes a sudden nosedive: I actually have a hunch it's only going to get better.
Will I Keep Reviewing It?
Maybe. I'll make that decision after I watch the second episode: there's enough good happening here so far to make me think it could be an interesting show to discuss every week.
Will It Last?
Based on the strong pedigree, the built-in audience, the overall quality, and the niche it refreshingly fills, I think Outlander will not only last, but thrive.
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