By Josh Axelrod
I’m really liking this whole trend of turning epic book series into TV shows as opposed to movies. “Game of Thrones” is the prime example of doing this right, with “True Blood” at the other end of the spectrum. But if nothing else, those shows get high enough ratings that it’s paving the way for more book-to-TV adaptations, like Starz’s new fantastical drama “Outlander.”
Based on Diana Gabaldon’s books, “Outlander” has pretty much everything you count want in a TV series. Drama, romance, sex, time travel, Scottish accents. Frankly, as solid as the pilot was, the most amazing thing about it is that I could understand the thick Scottish accents with no problems. That’s a miracle in and of itself.
For the uninitiated, the show follows Claire Randall (Caitroina Balfe), a British World War II nurse who was raised to be both a lady and a tomboy by an archaeologist uncle and is charming and sassy in all the right ways. The show picks up on V Day, which allows Claire to return home to her husband, Professor Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies, aka “Throne’s” Edmure Tully).
The two reconnect after five years apart by going on vacation in a small Scottish town. They spend the time checking out old ruins to which Frank believes he has ancestral connections. Of course, when they’re not sightseeing, they’re making up for five years of separation on their hotel bed. This show doesn’t skimp on the sex, that’s for sure.
Where has Balfe been, and why is this the first major thing she’s ever done? I’ve never read the books, so I don’t know how Claire is written. But Balfe plays her like an older, feistier, more mature Katniss Everdeen. She has no combat training, but she does have a lot of necessary survival skills. And unlike Ms. Everdeen, she has a warm personality, which is exemplified in her scenes with Frank. The two have an undeniable chemistry that never makes you question their marriage.
One day, Frank and Claire come across a Stonehenge-like rock formation where a group of women are performing some sort of ancient ritual. Claire sees a group of flowers she likes (botany is her main hobby) and goes back to pick them. That’s when all hell breaks loose.
Claire blacks out and wakes up in 18th-century Scotland. She promptly meets redcoat captain and Frank’s ancestor Black Jack Randall (also played by Menzies), who within minutes of meeting her tries to rape her. It’s admittedly pretty jarring to see Balfe and Menzies go from madly in love to…that. But it’s also the shock to the system Claire needed to remind her that she ain’t in Kansas anymore.
At the last minute, a Scottish rebel swoops in and saves Claire. He brings her back to his merry band of Scots, where she meets Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). They have a fun bickering relationship that is destined to turn into love, especially if the man who looks like her husband continues to hunt their little traveling party. I give it a few episodes before their first kiss, and not long after that until they just go for it.
The best way to describe this show is that it’s “Downton Abbey” (in terms of the inevitable culture clashes between posh Claire and the dirty Scots) with more engaging characters and a fantastical twist. The scope isn’t quite as epic as “Game of Thrones,” and the one troubling aspect of the pilot is that I have no idea where this show is going at this point.
But then again, the only reason I kept watching “Thrones” was to see if Bran was okay after Jamie (different Jamie, though also blonde) pushed him from that tower. “Outlander” didn’t even end with a cliffhanger and I can already tell I’m in for the long haul.