Thursday, August 7, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Outlander

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Saturdays at 9:00 PM on Starz

Initially, I was only going to watch Starz's new fantasy show Outlander because it was developed by Ronald D. Moore.  Having created Battlestar Galactica (one of my favorite shows of all time) and Virtuality (one of my favorite pilots of all time), he's one of those writers for whom I'll give a chance to anything they're involved with.  (This is what led me to sticking with Helix way longer than I should have, given its gradual slide into inanity.)  Though the Diana Gabaldon book series on which this show is based is popular, I've never read them, so I didn't have any built-in knowledge of the story.  A quick glance at the premise -- a former World War II nurse finds herself transported back to 1743 Scotland -- made the whole thing seem a bit silly, if I'm being honest.  But despite all of those misgivings, Outlander's pilot turned out to be shockingly great.

Part of the reason the show manages to be palatable is that the pilot takes its time introducing the actual concept.  The episode rounds out at a full 60 minutes and completely swims in it.  Before giving off any whiff of time travel, the show smartly lets you have ample time with Claire (Caitriona Balfe) as a person.  In that long introductory portion, she's shown to be determined, sensitive, thoughtful, and hard-working -- all of which make her a truly compelling protagonist.  To get in her head space even more, Moore chooses to have her narrate the events of the story (a vestige of the novels, no doubt), which is usually damning but totally works here.  If we didn't get to know Claire in the 1940s, then her getting blasted back to the past wouldn't matter much.

The pilot really soars once she gets mysteriously travels back to 1743, though.  It's truly commendable that the show has the conviction to keep its two leads apart until the last 20 minutes, especially because when Claire does meet Jamie (Sam Heughan), a Scottish civil war soldier, it's electrifying.  Clearly, Outlander is going to lean heavily on romance in the future, and the crazy chemistry between Balfe and Heughan ensures it'll be something worth looking forward to, not an element to merely put up with.  The scenes in the past are also deceptively funny.  As to be expected, some jokes derive from the fish out of water aspect of Claire's story, but more importantly, the laughs are very character-driven more often than not.

So far, the show is sexy but not sleazy, deliberately paced but not stuffy, and fun but not mindless.  Most of all, it proves that Ronald D. Moore -- a writer who hasn't had much success in the last few years -- can do great work outside of his usual realm of sci-fi.  Outlander is a spectacular fantasy program.  Yeah, I'm just as surprised as you are.

Grade: A-

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