TV Review: ‘Outlander’ Two-View: A Bonny Bore or Scotch Delight?
A BONNY BORE — Brian Lowry
For those who turned “Outlander” into an international bestseller, seeing the characters brought to life, with Scotland as the bonny backdrop, will doubtless be something of a kick. For everyone else, the resulting series is a bit of a snooze — handsome, yes, but about as dramatically compelling as the cover of a Harlequin Romance, and too flaccid to make hearts go pitter-pat. More practically, Starz courts a different demographic with this show, which with a few trims could easily have wound up on Lifetime. And based on its not-ready-for-premium attributes, that’s probably the time and place where “Outlander” most belongs.
“People disappear all the time,” says Claire (Caitriona Balfe), a British army nurse introduced at the end of World War II delivering a novel-esque voiceover that runs throughout. Weary of bloodshed, she seeks to reconnect with her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), as the two embark on a scholarly trip through Scotland, periodically interrupted by gauzily shot sex.
Developed by “Battlestar Galactica’s” Ronald D. Moore from Diana Gabaldon’s book, the premiere certainly takes its time before getting to the main event — namely, Claire being inexplicably whisked back in time, where she finds herself under the protection of the brutish MacKenzie clan. (It’s not till the second episode that we learn the date is 1743.)
Claire’s keepers include the imperious war chief Dougal (Graham McTavish), who’s only one of the bearded ruffians who (in a later episode) think about raping her; and Jamie (Sam Heughan), a clean-cut Adonis who endeavors to protect Claire’s honor when he isn’t exchanging meaningful glances with her. Menzies also lingers in a dual role as Frank’s ancestor, a sadistic British officer.
There’s something to be said for a show taking its time, especially when freed of the opening-night rating pressures associated with broadcast.
Still, “Outlander” meanders along so slowly that it needs to immerse viewers in its atmosphere and rhythms — something that might appeal to ardent fans of the book, but which seems destined to try the patience of those less invested in the story.
Claire is certainly a plucky and resourceful heroine — and Balfe looks smashing in the vintage garb — but the show doesn’t have much fun with her anachronistic knowledge, which includes medical skill that makes her a formidable healer, and her sobering realization that the Scots face a grim fate at the hands of the British army.
The principals are perfectly fine, but there’s only so much unconsummated smoldering one can take. And while the period touches have been assembled with care (and filmed in Scotland), long speeches in un-translated Gaelic have a way of yielding diminishing returns.
Starz and the producers are doubtless banking on the title’s established name and built-in following to justify their faith, along with the demonstrated appeal of costume dramas (everyone wants their own “Game of Thrones”) and century-spanning romance. There’s also the show’s international allure and the way the subject matter evokes past projects about Scottish resistance.
Strictly in creative terms, though, faced with the prospect of sitting through the whole run after sampling the first half-dozen episodes, well, that’s going to require a braver heart, or at least one more forgiving, than mine.