Not all entertainment is meant to be consumed by the masses. There are dozens of television shows that were either wildly beloved by all or are current cult favs that, for one reason or another, just never jelled with me. ER. Buffy. X-Files. Anything on CBS Monday nights. Sure, maybe I’ve caught an episode or two. Maybe even a season.
But these shows aren’t what I would call “appointment television.” And that’s OK. Not everything is meant for everyone. But this does bring me to Starz’s highly publicized new dramatic series, Outlander. I know a lot of people, very smart people, who will love this show and who love the long-running series of novels by Diana Gabaldon upon which it was based.
And, having watched only the first episode, I can tell you that this is not a show for me.
The series revolves around World War II nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) who is magically transported to 18th century Scotland during a second honeymoon of sorts with husband Frank (Tobias Menzies). The central time-travel conceit doesn’t really bother me as I’m perfectly willing to suspend quite a bit of disbelief. The problem is that it’s the least interesting portion of the show, in my opinion.
The pilot largely takes place in post World War II Scotland as the Randalls, newly freed from the obligations of the war, take a country jaunt to rekindle their dying marriage. They choose the quaint Scottish town of Inverness, the residents of which have recently painted blood over the tops of their doors for a local celebration. This section of the pilot is beautifully filmed and has the right mixture of foreboding and mystery. I wanted to spend hours here, particularly when night falls and mysterious watchers start appearing. You can practically feel the dense mist wrapping itself around you.
Yet, the central conceit of the novels and the show is that Claire somehow connects with an ancient stone (much like the stone circle from Pixar’s Brave) and wakes to find herself in the mid-18th century. Here, she meets Scottish warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) as he fights in a revolt against the British Redcoat threat (shades of AMCs Turn for those of you keeping score at home).
You can tell straight away where this is going. Although it does not happen in the pilot episode, Claire’s bodice will undoubtedly and mightily be ripped from her body in the finest of romance novel traditions. It was earlier revealed that she isn’t fond of underwear, so, clearly, bodice ripping is nearly at hand. And that’s just fine… if you’re into that sort of thing.
Outlander is far from a bad show, and I’m sure readers of the novels will find much to like in it. As someone uninitiated, though, I’m lost as to its allure and was not as immediately taken with it as I was with HBOs Game of Thrones. The two shows are wildly difference and can’t be compared, of course, but I’m merely saying as adaptations of popular, sprawling novels, Game immediately clicked with me. Outlander did not.
Perhaps the reason for that is the incessant narration the show employs. Claire is constantly telling us what she’s thinking at any given moment or what we should be thinking at any given moment, leaving nothing for the audience to infer on his or her own. It felt like the screenwriter ripped out entire passages of the novel and fed them directly to the lead, and it wore me out after an entire hour. Voice over is a tricky conceit and is best used when it supplements – either earnestly or ironically – the visual storytelling. I hope the series quickly disposes of the voice-overs as, here, it feels like a cheap and lazy plot-forwarding device.
But lovers of the novel, I suspect, will not care about this at all. And that’s totally fine with me. This just isn’t my cup of Scottish tea.
Outlander officially premieres on Starz! on Saturday, August 9, but is now available for streaming on the Starz! website.