Holy Hell, This is Amazing
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Starz has jumped into the book adaptation craze that will propel Hollywood for pretty much the foreseeable future and far beyond. Starz has had some quality programming in the past, even if the channel has been often dwarfed by HBO and Showtime. In terms of sexual content, however, Starz has been known for depictions of nudity that border on the fantastical. Cue to 2014, when the adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s eight-part series Outlander begins. Outlander is one of those series that is difficult to define within one genre, combing elements of fantasy, sci-fi, romance, and historical fiction all into one delectable fable. But it is outstanding, simply suburb television. The series is so immersive you feel like you’re in Scotland and the distinction with which its shot immediately conveys the time travel without having to drum it in your head with the “1743, Scotland” that would have been used otherwise. The acting is fantastic and there is GAELIC DIALOGUE. I have to say, I’m simply a sucker for distinctive linguistics and when a series goes that extra mile. I love it in Game of Thrones, I love it in The Americans, and I love it here. Bear McCreary’s distinctive theme and music is incredible and naturally, bagpipes are ubiquitous, but in the best way possible. If I have a caveat, and I do have one, it’s the voiceovers. At certain points, they’re illuminating even though they are, as Sonia Saraiya points out over at the AV Club review, a narrative cheat. A moment like that (outside of the cold open) is when Claire, the protagonist, is dealing with the concepts of rationality in contrast with her environment. It’s a great touch there. In other places (most of them in all honesty), the voiceovers are frankly annoying in the sense that they don’t add anything that couldn’t be told through natural dialogue. Sometimes the voiceovers basically describe what the viewer can already see and it’s distracting.
The plot is fairly straightforward and like all good/great pilots, there’s enough to keep us hooked without feeling confused. We begin with Claire, played to perfection by the brilliant Caitriona Balfe in what is sure to be her breakout role. She’s a nurse in WWII and the plot opens up with her operating on a man’s leg. She drinks wine as the end of the war is announced but she isn’t excited, she’s exhausted. Cue later, when Claire is traversing the Scottish Highlands with her husband, Frank Randall (Game of Thrones’ Tobias Menzies). Frank had served in the war for MI6 in an intelligence capacity and ever the history buff, he points out the varied landmarks and their historical significance. The couple has been apart for five years and this is their second honeymoon, where they try to reconnect. The audience gets a sense that they’re perfect for each other and treat each other as equals (an unfortunately rare occurrence in television). Equally rare is Frank performing oral sex on Claire when in most cases it’s often switched. One day they catch Druids performing a ritual and when Claire goes back, she’s transported into the middle of a battle in 1743 Scotland. She runs into her husband’s ancestor Jonathan (also played by Menzies), who nearly rapes her. That would be enough trauma for a lifetime, but then Claire is taken to the Clan MacKenzie. With her twentieth century medicinal knowledge, she stuns the locals with her healing abilities even though she’s seen as an English spy. That’s the rough span of the plot, which may slow at bits, but the team gives the story room to breathe, and it works.
The cast, as has been mentioned, is uniformly brilliant. Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall makes for one of the best female protagonists on screen. She’s sharp, she’s sexual, and she isn’t afraid to tell a cast of unknown men with rifles to fuck off (there’s a very funny moment with alcohol there). Sam Heughan is really good as the hunky Jamie Fraser with the disemboweled shoulder and his Gaelic interaction with Graham McTavish’s Dougal MacKenzie is an episode highlight. Tobias Menzies shows incredible range here and this might be some of his best work yet. As Claire’s husband Frank, he shows the perfect amount of hesitation, love, respect, and passion the role requires. As the British Jonathan in 1743, Menzies is suitably terrifying. His near-rape of the woman who would become a part of his family lineage a couple of centuries down is a terrifying scene and knowing where his storyline will go, Menzies will only become more scary. I can’t wait to see him tackle more of both roles. The supporting cast is great, although as of yet they aren’t given that much to do, which makes sense. The pilot always wants you to be as in tuned with the major players as possible, and Sassenach, which means “Outlander” in Gaelic, gets the job done on characters quite well.
Visually the series is tremendous. The incredible amount of detail is downright delectable. John Dahl, who has quite the director’s resume (The Americans, Hannibal, Person of Interest, Arrow, Homeland, Shameless, Terriers, Justified, The Vampire Diaries, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Battlestar Galactica, True Blood, Californication, et cetera), manages to capture every ounce of it brilliantly. The angles with which the natural landscapes are shot are brilliant and his use of color and lighting is exemplary and proficient. The coloring and texture of the show are really well done and there is a slight grayish tint to 1945 Scotland that gives is a beautiful texture of the past and storm clouds yet to come (ironic, considering that 1945 is the present in the series). The forest in 1743 is vivid, with the Scottish home of Clan MacKenzie given the appropriate amount of gravitas. The costuming is excellent, with the druids’ white dresses mirroring the one Claire would wear on her fateful day. The kilts, which are often used on screen as a comic object, are not made light of and the entire Scottish ensemble is given dark colors to portray the gravitas of the circumstances quite well. The infamous British red coats are vivid as ever, if calling back to every American history lesson where the bright red is visible and thus easier to target by the revolutionaries. The visual effects are quite seamless and blend in perfectly with the existing environment.
Overall, Outlander is an excellent series if the pilot is any indication. Sassenach is one of the best pilots I’ve seen and certainly the best pilot I can recall from a show that has romance so very near its center. The performances are solid and in Claire Randall the series gives us one of the best protagonists in television history. She’s nuanced, intelligent, passionate, and flawed as so many of the show’s characters have shown themselves to be. The romance is handled with remarkable maturity and in no way does the series make comical light of love and sexual attraction. It’s honest in how it handles relationships and it is incredibly refreshing to see that on screen. Visually the show is a stunner and Scotland as always looks gorgeous beyond belief. The voiceovers are my only gripe with the episode, but I’m holding hope they’ll get better with time. And frankly they’re used well half of the time. Once the series becomes more confident (and there’s no reason it shouldn’t), the voiceovers will hopefully fade and only resurface whenever necessary. Regardless, everything else was so good that it doesn’t hold much of a sway over my final opinion of the product. This is an absolutely excellent series and for convenience, I’ve added the link to the series premiere above. If you’re lucky enough to have Starz, watch this and if you can afford to get it, please do. This is really, really good stuff. If not, find a friend who has Starz. This is truly a part of the Golden Age of Television Adaptations. Meanwhile, it’s going to be a long wait until next Saturday.
Episode Title: Sassenach
Writer: John Dahl
Director: Ronald D. Moore
Image Courtesy: Hitfix