“WAIT A MINUTE- this isn’t a Netflix Original!” We hear you say. You’ve fallen into our trap, life isn’t all ‘Netflix & Chill’, there are other streaming services, ones that come with other shows like the one we’re talking about today and… that one with Halle Berry (Though seriously, Transparent, Red Oaks and Mozart in the Jungle are great – TV Ed.). Anyway, Outlander.
Outlander is a difficult show to pigeonhole. A sort-of time-travelling, semi-historically accurate, romantic-action-comedy-drama about a World War II Nurse, Claire, who visits 1940s Scotland to retrace the ancestral steps of her husband, Frank, only to find herself thrown back in time – via standing stone – to 1743. Without giving away too much of the story, in her first interactions of 18th Scotland, she is met by both Royalist English & Highlander Scottish sides – the main character of one being Frank’s ancestor, ‘Black’ Jack Randall, and the other being ginger beefcake, Jamie Fraser. Other stuff happens, she finds herself using her modern day nursing skills to heal the sick of this new world, gets angry at 18th Century idiocy, finds herself essentially flung across the country, and tries – somewhat – to get back to the 20th Century, and to her husband.
The show successfully transcends the simplistic romance that you might expect by mining the elements of other popular streaming shows. It has the single solid story, pulled across an entire series, seen in Daredevil and Sense8. It has a full range of new and interesting (albeit sometimes hard to understand) characters, like with Orange is the New Black or Breaking Bad. Best of all, it’s got nudity in it, like Game of Thrones, but on a far less ‘wank bank’ level and more within the context of the scene including what is essentially an entire episode dedicated simply to post-marital sex. These scenes are shot and played in such a way that you’re far more interested in the dialogue and narrative than the actual ‘knookie-knookie’. Unlike Game of ‘Let’s see how many actresses we can get to take off their tops’ Thrones, Outlander is also incredibly gender-blind when it concerns the actor’s body. There is plenty of half- and full-frontal nudity from all sides, and visibility of lower bits are equal parts the beauties of Scotland…and the beasts. In all their glory. All of it. Moving on…
Whilst there are high numbers of incredibly talented British actors in the cast, most of the supporting roles do seem to fall into two categories. English? Filthy corrupted redcoat. Scottish? Filthy corrupted highlander. Especially as the closest we get to an explanation for their actions is they’re either a.) In love with Claire (and just about every other woman they can get their hands on), b) cowardly and angry about it, or c.) English. It becomes almost confusing trying to keep up who’s had a sudden change of heart and swapped from one side to the other. It also seems to drop out at some point in the first season from showing the story on the ‘other side’ of the standing stone. Even though this is never mentioned in Diana Gabaldon’s source novels, it is a delectable addition to a previously unseen plotline, and we only see it go so far before it is pulled away from us again.
There are stand-outs within the cast: Graham McTavish (The Hobbit) plays one of the more complex characters, as Dougal MacKenzie – brother of the head of the MacKenzie clan, Colin – You never know which side he’s on, and even after a full season, you’re not sure if you want to know. Tobias Menzies (Game of Thrones) taking double duty as both lovable – and left-behind – husband Frank, and also as Frank’s ancestor, the insidious, sadistic ‘Black’ Jack Randall. Torn between characters of paragon and corruption, Tobias makes it perfectly clear in the role that is turning, even to where Claire as a character immediately knows that Jack is not her husband, before he’s said a word. ‘Black’ Jack is a special person of interest all in himself, rivalling the evil of Joffrey Lannister, but to an extreme that simply leaps over the border of discomfort. If you watch the TV series believing his intentions are only for Claire, just wait until the very last episode. Other notable turns include Sam Heughan as Jamie, Duncan Lacroix as Jamie’s friend, Murtagh Fraser and of course Caitriona Balfe as protagonist, Claire Randall, who immediately combines the stern post-war powerful attitude of a served Nurse with the empathic good nature of a time-traveller who seems to know a little more about what happens in Scotland than she would care to like.
The plot, as developed by Battlestar Galactica‘s Ronald D. Moore, flows well in the first series. It works to establish the MacKenzie clan in the first half of the season, as well as Claire’s attempts to get back to her own time, whilst still trying to ensure the safety of these very-real 18th Century Scots. The second half plunges viewers into darkness: the story becomes a lot bleaker and any friendliness from the first half has been replaced by incredibly unsettling scenes & revelations. There is still humour to be found throughout the show, mostly of the somewhat unintelligent highlanders not understanding how to respond to a powerful woman – especially if that woman is in charge of them. Oh, and if you’re wondering, yes, the sex still remains. It’s interesting to see how somewhat from a not-too-distant past can manipulate a much-further-out past with their own knowledge (and Claire is extremely knowledgeable), concerning issues of civil war, revolution, accusations of witchcraft & the trials that followed, and women’s rights of then vs (sort-of) now. The only fault to be said of the over-arching narrative is that it takes AGES for Claire to get from point A to point B, and as a viewer, you’re wanting there to be some sort of larger antagonist or problem for her to overcome before trying to return home. Instead, each episode seems to slowly crawl forward but focussing more on being Doctor’s Surgery: Jacobite Edition.
Outlander is a truly underrated piece of television. Yes, technically speaking, it’s not an Original (damn you, ‘Starz’ channel), but from a UK or non-American point, its main selling point comes from its position as an Amazon Prime mainstay. It’s definitely worth the watch, especially (and this may sound odd) for couples, as it offers the best of both worlds in narrative and (here we go again) nudity. If not for the second half of the season alone or that damn catchy opening tune, watch Outlander for the sheer fact that it may soon reach the popularity levels of those previously-mentioned shows, and everyone loves to have been the first to watch something. Heck, there’s only a handful of us who watched the very first episode of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead when they first came out, and Outlander can quite easily reach those same levels. After all, Rotten Tomatoes rates the series 91%, which is higher than the first seasons of both Thrones and Dead. So what are you waiting for? Get yourself a Prime account, grab your kilt, blue paint, and Claymore, and go watch Outlander. You won’t regret it.