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'Outlander' Review: A Gorgeous If Rocky Trip To Scotland

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OUTLANDER
Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in 'Outlander.' | Starz

As is the case with "Game of Thrones," you don't have to be a fan of the best-selling "Outlander" books to find things to enjoy in the TV version of the tale.

"Game of Thrones" -- which, like "Outlander," is partly a tale of warring clans full of bearded guys -- often unleashes unforgettable visuals and has a terrific cast, but let's not kid ourselves, the HBO show's sprawl factor increases every season. There are a lot of beard-wearers, courtiers, strivers and connivers to keep track of, not to mention complicated factional alliances and complex interpersonal histories, and the occasional cullings and disastrous weddings haven't quite kept pace with the drama's thick tangle of story threads. It's a lot to keep track of, and that was the case even in the show's first season.

At first, one of the virtues of "Outlander" virtues is the linearity and focus of the tale, even though it does involve time travel. The premise is quite simple: On a holiday in Scotland, World War II nurse Claire Randall visits a ring of sacred stones and falls through a rip in the fabric of spacetime; in the blink of an eye, she finds herself in the same location but around 200 years earlier. Much of the first half of the show's debut season follows the progress of Claire's dual quests: She needs to find a way to be accepted or at least tolerated by the Highland clans of the era (and her healing skills are helpful there), and she wants to get back to her own time and the husband she left behind.

The tourism board of Scotland doesn't appear to have given "Outlander" any money, but its top officials should, at the very least, send the show's producers a gift basket packed with complimentary whisky and shortbread. The first six episodes of the Starz drama are a feast for the eyes, and, as is the case with a very different HBO show, "Treme," the way the place is depicted helps convey why its residents care so much about it. Few things on your television this year will look as gorgeous as "Outlander," which makes for a nice contrast to the bloodier fare TV keeps flinging at us.

More things to like: Bear McCreary's music is haunting, yearning and exciting in equal measure; the male leads, Tobias Menzies and Sam Heughan, have undeniable presence, and the show's sincerity of purpose has its winning side as well.

That said, the metabolism on "Outlander" could use a boost.

The premiere is engaging enough and the sixth episode is mesmerizing from start to finish, but sections of other episodes meander and sag. Are the lack of tension and some tonal inconsistencies due to an excessive deference to its source material? I couldn't say -- I haven't read the books and I don't plan to while the show is on the air (as far as the books-vs-TV debate goes, I agree wholeheartedly with James Poniewozik's position). Whatever the cause, parts of the TV version of "Outlander" lack a strong narrative drive.

I'm all for an ambitious drama that isn't about a misunderstood male anti-hero, but there's a circular quality to Claire's central problem -- she wants to go home but she can't get to the sacred stones that might transport her back -- and that repetitive dynamic is underlined by voiceovers that don't always feel necessary. Also, the first half-dozen "Outlander" installments are weighed down by some cumbersome expository patches, and the show's supporting characters are a little one-dimensional and even, in a couple of cases, a bit cartoonish.

As Claire, Caitriona Balfe holds her own in a very daunting role that requires her to be in almost every scene, but through the course of the first season you can see her begin to grow into the role, and the show perks up quite a bit whenever she shares the screen with Heughan or Menzies. Heughan has a natural, unforced charisma that bodes well for the show's future, and he imbues Jamie with the combination of passion and restraint that the character's description calls for. Menzies (Edmure Tully on "Game of Thrones") is exceptional in roles that allow the actor to appear in two different time frames: He plays Claire's husband, Frank, as well as the brutal English Army officer known as Black Jack Randall. Menzies effortlessly convey's Frank's haunted quality -- as a spymaster, he knows he unwittingly sent many operatives to their deaths -- and he is entirely believable as Black Jack, whose legendary cruelty made him a despised figure among the Highlanders.

Menzies' performance in Episode 6, which focuses on Black Jack, is truly exceptional in every way, and if you're wavering about "Outlander," as I was during some of its early episodes, this is the one that strongly convinced me to stick with the show.

Another element in the show's favor: Its treatment of sex and violence makes "Outlander" an outlier -- but in a good way. When "Outlander" depicts sexual encounters, it's realistic, emotionally grounded and refreshingly lacking in exploitative elements, and the occasional violence on "Outlander" is similarly kinetic, gritty and unglamorized. Given how much time Claire spends tending to characters' wounds, we see the mental and physical cost of the violent lives of the Highlanders, who are in rebellion against the hated English. Claire herself is regarded as a spy, and "Outlander doesn't ignore the various dangers to her, but the show is generally intelligent and perceptive in how it depicts women's strategies for dealing with physical and mental harassment.

And though it can lead to pacing problems, the show's considered approach is something of a relief at times. Lately huge swaths of the television industry have become locked into an arms race when it comes to depicting garish extremes of every sort: Every network wants that promotable moment, the social-media meltdown, the batshit-crazy development that will bring more eyeballs and help a program stand out. Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with wanting a show to be memorable, but all the button-pushing can start to seem both rote and exhausting: Nothing's extreme if everything is. Thus it can be comforting to sink into the deliberate world-building of "Outlander" and appreciate its measured pace, its memorable visuals and its quiet attention to detail.

But "Outlander" is, after all, an epic romance, one that should be viscerally experienced, felt not just in the head but in the heart and the guts. There are times when "Outlander" shows glimmerings of that vitality and emotional depth, and if we're lucky, this earnest drama will keep heading in that direction. Claire may not have wanted to be transported, but I do.

The first episode will be made available Saturday on selected platforms, but "Outlander" officially premieres Aug. 9 at 9 p.m. ET on Starz.

Ryan McGee and I talked about "The Knick" and "Outlander" in the latest Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.


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