[This is a review of the Outlander series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
Starz has been a network in a desperate sprint to find a gem in its orginal program lineup to match its acclaimed rivals HBO and Showtime. There have been success stories, like the highly underrated Spartacus franchise, and even some critical admiration for Kelsey Grammer’s performance in Boss. Now, a new gem emerges called Outlander, which is based on of a best-selling series of books (eight to be exact) written by Diana Gabaldon.
The premium cable provider chose wisely when deciding who should lead this new ambitious series with Battlestar Galactica executive producer and showrunner Ronald D. Moore. Starz even found room for the former BSG musical composer Bear McCreary, whose haunting melodies can currently be found on AMC’s juggernaut, The Walking Dead.
There is no denying this team’s formidable gifts as a creative force, but a television series is nothing without an equally talented cast to bring Ms. Gabaldon’s epic story to life. This brings us to the gorgeous Irish-born actress, Caitriona Balfe.
If one were to examine her acting resume, you might find yourself disappointed, as this former Dolche & Gabbana model is a relative newcomer compared to most of her fellow cast members. Fortunately, Balfe uses her supposed weaknesses as strengths and gives an excellent performance in what could be a breakout role.
In the premiere, entitled ‘Sassenach,’ Balfe portrays a former World War II combat nurse named Claire Randall. Her husband, Frank, who is a newly appointed history professor at Oxford, is played by the versatile Tobias Menzies (Game of Thrones). Together, the acting pair possess a chemistry rarely seen on television, or even film for that matter. It’s almost as if we’re reconnecting with them as the couple rekindle their love for each other during a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands.
Frank is that kind of character you can’t help but like. Menzies brings charisma to a man who could easily be made to look clumsy and foolish with all of his rants about the historical significance of the town they’re visiting.
One of the more beautifully shot scenes by director John Dahl (Arrow) takes place during a ritual atop a hill with large stones, named Craig na Dun. The stunning choreography of the druids dancing in the early morning light transports you to somewhere else. Claire is haunted by the sight, realizing it’s a place she has no right to be in. Where does that feeling come from?
As with any popular book series, like Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, there will be a strong debate between those who have read Gabaldon’s works and those who have not (this reviewer included among the latter). Phrases such as, “Just wait and see,” and “Oh, you should just read the books” are likely to ebb and flow, but
Moore doesn’t seem concerned with all of that, as the premiere simply states its case without getting too bogged down in details better served for a text over 800 pages in length. It’s important to note that this is no easy task and very few directors/writers ever get it right. Peter Jackson with Lord of the Rings along with the plethora of creative teams involved in the Harry Potter franchise found both financial and creative success. Hopefully, Moore and his staff will be as fortunate.
Balfe’s portrayal of Claire Randall brings to light another issue that has been getting only slightly better in Hollywood over the last ten years, which is the importance of having strong female characters onscreen. Moore, with his work on BSG, knows how wonderful a strong female cast can be. What’s so impressive about Balfe’s performance is that unlike BSG, she doesn’t have a large ensemble to feed off of. During the premiere, it’s mostly her and Frank, along with the 1740s version of Frank and the strikingly handsome Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan).
Every time she utters the simplest of words, Balfe dominates the screen. Even when standing toe-to-toe with the imposing Scottish-born actor Graham McTavish (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) she easily holds her own. Her resume may be short, but she handles herself as well as any seasoned actor. It should be fascinating to see what she’s capable of as the season progresses.
Whether you’re a loyal fan of the books or a newcomer to Outlander, Starz latest entry in the world of television dramas looks to be a story you’ll want to stick with until the end. There will be 16 episodes in total for the first season, with 8 airing over the next several weeks, then a short recess to pick back up in early 2015.
What did you think of the premiere? For book readers, did writer Ronald D. Moore do justice to Gabaldon’s book, or did you find it lacking? Keep watching to see what happens to Claire in 18th century Scotland.
Outlander continues with ‘Castle Leoch’ next Saturday @9pm on Starz. Watch the entire premiere below: