Starz's new drama series “Outlander” tells the story of a World War II combat nurse from England who finds herself flung back in time to the Scottish highlands in the 1740s, struggling to adjust to the customs of this strange place and period, trying to figure out a way to return home, and torn between her love for her academic husband in the 20th century and her growing feelings for the rugged, kilted Scotsman who becomes her friend and chief protector.
These are all elements and overlapping genres that, on paper, I usually have little use for. But “Outlander,” adapted by “Battlestar Galactica” showrunner Ronald D. Moore from the popular novels by Diana Gabaldon, is a classic example of the old Roger Ebert axiom that what a story is about is ultimately less important than how it's about it. That outline above suggests a formulaic mash-up of fantasy and romance novels, but “Outlander” in practice (it debuts Saturday night at 9, though the first episode has been available online for a while) is exceedingly watchable and has far more on its mind than counting down to the ripping of bodices.
It gets way ahead of the game with the casting of Caitriona Balfe in the lead role, and with the way it establishes her as a tough, independent woman trapped in an era that has no use for such a creature. The story is told entirely from Claire's perspective (she even narrates her story, which is clunky at times but also useful when Moore and company need to provide some historical context) and she's on-screen in virtually every scene. That kind of narrative prominence requires someone exceedingly charismatic and appealing, and Balfe never wilts under the camera's strong, constant gaze.
The series also wisely focuses first on Claire's rough adjustment to this different era, while letting the romance end of things simmer in the background. Sparks fly in her very first encounter with the strapping Jamie (Sam Heughan), but “Outlander” is content to take the long game with that(*) and focus on what would obviously be the more pressing concern to a woman in Claire's fantastical circumstance: How do I get back home, and how do I survive this nasty place until I do? So even as she occasionally gets to ride double with Jamie, or enjoy a picnic with him in the beautiful countryside, she is initially putting most of her time and mental energy towards trying to carve out a livable space for herself – as both a woman and a practitioner of medicine – in such an unenlightened time. It's a durable conflict, and one that causes tension from all corners of local life, whether she's trying to stop a priest from performing a violent exorcism on a boy who's merely suffering from food poisoning, or trying to conceal her true identity from the Scottish laird who takes her in as his guest/prisoner.
(*) Your mileage may vary on the length of said game. I've heard complaints that the show moves slowly – the premiere, for instance, spends a whole lot of time in the 1940s before Claire becomes a time-traveler – but to me the show didn't drag. Then again, one of my favorite shows of the moment is “Rectify.” Adjust accordingly.
The series was filmed on location in Scotland, and John Dahl and the directors who follow him get terrific value out of shooting among those actual hills, finding ways to capture both their beauty and their danger. (The first episode is set primarily in the 1940s, and the show pulls off a “Wizard of Oz”-ian shift in the color palette between the grey austerity of the post-war years and the vivid greens and blues of the olden days.) The very busy composer Bear McCreary, who got his start in television providing the “Battlestar Galactica” score, embraces the opportunity to go heavy on the bagpipes with his evocative themes for the show. The commitment to authenticity runs so deep that the show not only frequently features its characters speaking Gaelic, but – unlike “The Bridge” or “The Americans,” which feature extensive use of, respectively, Spanish and Russian – does not provide subtitles, to put us even more into Claire's frame of mind. (She often, but not always, is provided provided abridged translations by the people around her, but – as Fienberg pointed out to me when we discussed the approach – the only other current show that gives its audience so much of a foreign language without constant explanation is “Switched at Birth,” and even that offers subtitles some of the time.)
Balfe is accompanied by a sturdy supporting cast beyond Heughan. Particularly strong are Graham McTavish as Dougal, the suspicious, deadly brother of the local laird, and Tobias Menzies in a dual role, as both Claire's modern husband Frank and as Frank's redcoat ancestor, Black Jack Randall. Black Jack is unsurprisingly the more vivid character – if the show has an obvious flaw, it's that it doesn't do a great job of selling Frank as a man Claire would move heaven and earth to return to (and even that's compensated for by the many other obvious reasons she'd want to escape the past) – but since he's the one we see much more of, it all works out.
The series also dives deep into the customs and rituals of life in that part of Scotland in that time in history, and is as detail-oriented on that subject as “Downton Abbey” is about proper table settings and when, if ever, it's appropriate for a lord of the manor to appear in black tie as opposed to white. “Downton,” by the way, was a show where I couldn't really go along with Ebert's what vs. how theory, even in the days when it was more universally regarded as great. (In this case, I imagine the more dangerous setting lowered the bar “Outlander” had to clear for me.)
Starz has been searching for a signature show ever since “Spartacus” ended. With former HBO boss Chris Albrecht in charge, the channel tried its own prestige-y dramas like “Magic City” and “Boss,” before settling on colorful historical epics like “Da Vinci's Demons,” “Black Sails” and now this(**).
(**) One thing the shows of all Starz eras have had in common is an almost comically gratuitous approach to nudity; though “Outlander” is not shy about sex, particularly in its first episode, it's easily the most restrained of the bunch.
“Outlander” is by far the best of these Starz costume dramas I've seen. It knows the stories it wants to tell and the strongest way to tell them. I haven't read Gabaldon's books and can't speak for the show's fidelity to them, but “Outlander” feels like it can have an audience far beyond those who have already read Claire and Jamie's adventures in print. To borrow a line from Fienberg and paraphrase “Sports Night,” if Starz executives can't make “Outlander” into a big hit, they need to get out of the hit-making business and go back to just showing movies. But I'm guessing they won't have to deal with that problem.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org