Had you told me a few months ago that I'd be swept up by the romance at the center of "Outlander" (8 p.m. Aug. 9, Starz; 3.5 stars out of 4), I would have scoffed. I'd rather you jab my eyes with a stick than force them to watch "Titanic" or "The Notebook" ever again.
Ronald D. Moore ("Battlestar Galactica"), adapting the 16-episode first season from the wildly popular book series by Diana Gabaldon, presents the adventure's romance without the sentimentality that often makes such tales too cheesy to endure. He also avoids the gratuitous "wink-wink" sex and flesh that many cable shows seem to think is a must.
For those positives and its terrific cast, my heart will go on for "Outlander."
The genre-bending, time-traveling tale begins in 1945 as former field nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) and her former spy master husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), take a second honeymoon in Scotland after being separated for five years by World War II. On a day trip, Claire touches one in a ring of apparently mystical stones and is transported to the same location in 1743—a tumultuous time when the British were occupying the Scottish Highlands to end the clan system of rule.
Claire is attacked by British Capt. Black Jack Randall (Menzies again)—who looks suspiciously like her husband—but is rescued by a group of Gaelic-speaking, kilt-wearing Scottish warriors from the Clan MacKenzie and taken back to their castle. On the way, viewers traverse the astonishingly beautiful Scottish countryside and the amazing production values of "Outlander." Claire gets some eye-candy of her own in the form of the swoon-worthy Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a stand-up lad among his rowdier mates despite his torture at the hands of Black Jack.
And thus, a great love begins. But wait, what about Frank? The first episode of "Outlander," which already is streaming online (see above), moves deliberately—but for good reason. It emotionally sets up much of Claire's future (um, in the past) by making us feel the love Claire already has for Frank and how that colors all her decisions.
The pacing picks up, but then sags in parts of the first five episodes as we're subjected to unneeded voiceover. I could listen to Balfe read the phonebook—in Gaelic even!—but the narration takes me out of the action. We glean everything we need about her feelings as we watch Claire get to know her 18th century friends and enemies and try to find her way back to the stones, 1945 and Frank.
That said, I urge viewers to stick around, because Episode 6 is brilliantly tense from start to finish. When Claire and Black Jack meet again, Menzies is mesmerizing; the captain is the king's enforcer and he can't be trusted. Balfe cements her leading lady status as Claire tries desperately to find a piece of Frank's decency in his ancestor's despicable soul.
Heughan, too, is not just a handsome face and hunky bod. His Jamie is a sensitive but heroic figure scarred inside and out by familial ties and the redcoats.
Despite its supporting cast of international actors who bring even thinly drawn characters to life, "Outlander" truly shines when Balfe shares the screen with either Heughan or Menzies. I wasn't quite holding my breath, but found myself waiting eagerly for each new encounter.
Hmm, maybe "Outlander" is making me a romantic after all.
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