With a reputation for gratuitous flesh and boning, Starz is the last place you'd expect to find a mature love story. But the pleasantly surprising Outlander gives us a romance between adults that feels adult, that's sexy and smart and stirring. The drama adapted from Diana Gabaldon's book series comes from Ronald D. Moore, who commanded Syfy's reboot of Battlestar Galactica. He and his team conjure up 18th-century Scotland with equally impressive verisimilitude. Outlander may not be the next great sci-fi opus that Moore's fanboys crave this is not a tony TV reinvention of Highlander but it is transporting thanks to his commitment to emotional resonance and world-building.
In a way, Moore is telling the same story he did in Battlestar: Outlander is about a tortured, transformative search for home. It begins after World War II, with married Brits Claire (Caitriona Balfe), a former army nurse, and Frank (Tobias Menzies), an ex-intelligence officer, trying to rebuild their relationship during a trip to the Scottish Highlands. While investigating a Stonehenge-like arrangement of rocks, Claire is whisked back to 1743, a pivot point in the history of Highlander culture. She's held captive by Clan MacKenzie, led by the charismatic bowlegged Colum (Gary Lewis) and his gruff bro Dougal (Graham McTavish) and becomes captivated by Jamie (Sam Heughan), a hunky outlier, scarred physically and emotionally. She also runs afoul of Frank's redcoat ancestor Black Jack Randall (also played by Menzies), a war-warped sadist. Their confrontation in episode 6 is terrifically suspenseful and terrifying.
Moore draws you into Claire's ordeal with extensive use of narration a dramatic cheat but effective and deliberate pacing. The premiere doesn't rush to her mystical departure; instead it dotes on Claire and Frank, making you feel their love. It's an investment that pays off: When the narrative ditches Frank, his presence lingers powerfully. Similarly, Outlander doesn't hustle the Claire-Jamie romance but cultivates a rapport rooted in empathy. By the time their relationship escalates, it's been earned. It helps that the cast is uniformly strong and that Balfe delivers a star-making turn.
Though technically a time-travel tale, Outlander eschews the typical tropes. It's more Peggy Sue Got Married poignant than Back to the Future geeky. There's a subtly played allegorical aspect to Claire's adventure, too. You could read her time-space odyssey as a Narnia-esque dream-fantasy, a way to process her war trauma and fluxy identity. There's also a feminist interpretation: Claire strong, intelligent, and sophisticated; married to a man who regards her as an equal has gone down a rabbit hole into a misogynistic, patriarchal society. Outlander is good enough to inspire such overthinking. What makes it just plain good is the escapist fun of a romance told uncommonly well. A-