I’ve been trying to write a post about Starz new show Outlander for the month or so; pretty much ever since the first episode went up online at the start of August. The show is great, but I have been having trouble organizing my thoughts into a coherent post. While I am a fan of the book that this series is based on, it is not something I tend to bring up a lot. The thing about the Outlander series is that it is seems targeted at, or at least enjoyed by, women and I am an insecure little baby. It is not something I should care about, but I find it hard not to. The idea that certain kinds of media are inherently masculine or feminine is artificial and limiting. The advertising for the TV adaptation is definitely targeting women, but that shouldn’t stop anybody from watching it.
The press I saw for the show before it aired seemed to be setting up Outlander to be Game of Thrones for women. It is only really similar to that show in that it is based on an extensive book series that can roughly be called “fantasy.” Of course, Outlander’s fantasy is actually just 18th century Scotland, but that is essentially the same thing as far as anyone living in this century knows. Otherwise, the two shows don’t share all that much. (I’ll be honest, I’ve only watched about half of the first season of GoT, but I have read the first four books and I don’t care to watch the things I read played out on TV. It just isn’t my cup of tea.) It does have moments of graphic violence, but they are few and rely in their rarity for their impact. Much of the story is largely pleasant historical fiction. What makes it supposedly for women is that it can largely be called a romance and that the protagonist is a woman. That, though, ignores all the other elements that make Outlander enjoyable.
Anyone who doesn’t tend to enjoy romance shouldn’t let that dissuade them from giving the show a try. Outlander is a story that doesn’t fit neatly into any genre. It has elements of historical fiction, adventure, fantasy and romance. And the romance angle largely fades after the first book. It doesn’t go away; it is an integral part of the series, but the focus shifts more to the historical fiction and adventure parts. The way all those elements come together is a big part of what makes the series so enjoyable.
Outlander also has an excellent protagonist in Claire. She adapts to large parts of her predicament quickly and is generally intelligent and capable. It is also genuinely and truly from her perspective. The book was first person and the show keeps much of her narration, which gives people a clear perspective on her charms and flaws. Like all great character’s, Claire’s flaws really help make her real and entertaining. For example, she is often too free with her comments for the men, and women for that matter, of that age. She also tends to act, at least on seemingly small issues, without putting much thought into the consequences. Claire, coming from the relatively empowered society of WWII Europe, understandably struggles to adjust to the rigid gender roles of the 18th century. While Claire struggles with that, she never stops being the driving force in the story.
The show itself is really good. It is slow, but it is a confident sort of slow. Outlander has a story to tell and it is not going to rush the telling. The crux of the series, Claire being whisked back in time away from her husband Frank, doesn’t occur until nearly three quarters the way through the first episode. They take plenty of time to set up the relationship of Claire and Frank; that relationship is an important factor that is necessary to the bulk of the following episodes. Once the show gets to the past, it lets the viewer get to know the world that Claire has found herself in. It is a largely faithful adaptation of the book, but not one afraid to move some pieces around to make the show on an episode to episode basis. The cast all give excellent performances, the set and costume design is astounding and the sound is terrific. The biggest flaw of the show is the heavy handed narration. Getting Claire’s perspective on the goings on is vital to the show, but in the early episodes the narration simply feels insecure. Claire unnecessarily narrates things the viewer’s just watched, not trusting them to understand the nuances.
Outlander, at least through the first half season, is not the best thing ever. It is a solid, thoughtful adaptation of the novel, but most of the best parts are in the back half of the book. These episodes do a lot of heavy lifting setting the world of this show up, but the break occurs before the payoff. Hopefully the show can nail that payoff.