Starz' 'Outlander': Adventure, romance, men in kilts

Caitriona Balfe is Claire "Sassenach" Randall, and Sam Heughan is Jamie Fraser, and fans of the Diana Gabaldon books will almost certainly approve.
Caitriona Balfe is Claire "Sassenach" Randall, and Sam Heughan is Jamie Fraser, and fans of the Diana Gabaldon books will almost certainly approve.
Posted: August 07, 2014

* OUTLANDER. 9 p.m. Saturday, Starz.

CAN a premium-cable audience find romance with a time-traveling World War II nurse in 18th-century Scotland?

Starz is betting on it, to the tune of at least 16 episodes.

And I'm betting on Starz, whose new drama, "Outlander," is as welcoming to newcomers as it should be to the millions of fans of Diana Gabaldon's best-sellers, who have had more than 20 years to form mental pictures of Claire "Sassenach" Randall and Jamie Fraser, and are unlikely to have imagined better than the superbly cast Caitriona Balfe ("Super 8") and Sam Heughan ("Island at War").

(Molly Eichel's interview with Gabaldon can be found on Page 7.)

Adapted by "Battlestar Galactica" producer Ronald D. Moore, "Outlander" operates in a different sphere from HBO's "Game of Thrones," to which it's already being compared.

Gabaldon's books are as long as George R.R. Martin's, but easier to follow, if only because it's mostly Claire we're following. So keeping track shouldn't require a spreadsheet.

"Thrones" is a fantasy inspired by the War of the Roses, but "Outlander," despite the time-travel, is rooted in two identifiable centuries, romanticizing neither.

And then there's the sex. You knew there'd be sex, right?

Turns out it's possible to integrate it into a story in a way that doesn't involve using naked women to break up long monologues or hint that a network has a boobs-per-hour quota - and who knew that the network of "Spartacus" and "Boss" would be the place to do it?

I've seen six episodes, and am about two-thirds through the fourth book (hey, I started in mid-June) and I'm curious to see how "Outlander" will handle some sexual developments beyond that.

For now, a scene between Claire and her 20th-century husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies, "The Honorable Woman"), in Saturday's premiere shows Claire as a woman who knows what she wants, in any century.

Adventure lovers of both sexes should want "Outlander."

Claire, whose ability as a nurse is established in the show's first scene, requires a steady supply of interesting injuries to keep her busy, and the 1740s Scottish Highlands provide it, whether it's manly men's encounters with raiding Redcoats or with rampaging boars.

If you're expecting guys in ceremonial kilts blowing bagpipes wherever they go, think again.

The earth-toned strips of plaid that cover most of the show's gritty Scotsmen seem to be endlessly adaptable - It's a skirt! It's a shelter! It's a blanket! - and may be more accurate than the Victorian depictions of clan tartans with which we're familiar.

Either way, they're only a clever infomercial away from a revival.

The women, too, look properly homespun, though the costume team may have gone slightly overboard for Balfe, whose 1743 wardrobe's pretty extensive for a woman who's just wandered in from another century. As a knitter, I couldn't help marveling at the variety of small, cozy items she manages to acquire (and if there's not an "Outlander" pattern book yet, there should be).

Adapting a beloved book series is tricky: The built-in audience may demand fidelity at all costs while viewers unfamiliar with the material may wonder what they're missing.

Moore, whose reimagining of a '70s sci-fi series became something far more sophisticated in "Battlestar Galactica," isn't riding roughshod over Gabaldon, but neither is he her slave.

Together, they're telling a story about time that's well worth yours.


Email: graye@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5950

On Twitter: @elgray

Blog: ph.ly/EllenGray

 

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