Historical romance novels are hard to transfer to the screen, as the material may seem uniquely cheesy and predominantly female-oriented from the start (not that there's anything wrong with that of course). But in the age of Game of Thrones, when fantasy period pieces have suddenly become not only viable but increasingly popular, Ronald Moore, showrunner of Battlestar Galactica, has taken the bestselling Outlander book series by Diana Gabaldon and turned it into sweeping, romantic, cinematic and stunningly addictive television. I ate up the first season like it was ice cream and can't wait to do it again- even if it's a guilty pleasure that might make you blush if watching it with other people (hint: this show uses its Starz platform to give us some of the longest and most explicit sex scenes on television, bordering on soft core porn), if you're at all prone to this material you will be hooked by the end of the first episode.
Our heroine is Claire Randall, a 1940's English war nurse played by the Irish newbie Caitriona Balfe, a sensitive, warm and intelligent screen presence. After the war ends Claire reunites with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) for a second honeymoon in the Scottish highlands, which are swamped by mythical forces beyond explanation. As a historian, Frank conveniently details the history of the land and his own family ancestry before Claire is suddenly swept up in the magic, falling through the legendary stones and through time to end up in the same place circa 1743, two hundred years earlier. As in all fantasy stories like this, you have to accept the premise for what it is- Moore doesn't bother to get too technical with the details and the show's all the better for it. Claire is a modern (well, 1940's modern) woman "out of time" who must navigate her way through the dangerous and brutal period where she finds herself trapped. She comes in contact with all sorts in the Scotland of the 1740's, when the English redcoats routinely terrorized the Scottish highlanders, and though she manages to make herself useful with the people she comes in contact with (her profession as a nurse may as well make her something akin to a wizard in this era), she must avoid the ever present threats of accusations of witchcraft, being an English spy, and of course, rape.
Rape is an ever present threat, a common trope in historical romance novels, and the show doesn't shy away from showing what was the major, constant fear for all women in a somewhat barbaric time. The violence on the show is extreme, comparative to Game of Thrones but at times much more excessive due to the lengthy scenes and far more realistic sadism of what was supposed to be in fact, the actual world of the 18th century as opposed to the medieval fantasy setting where dragons and white walkers roam. This was a real, very primal, very dangerous world for women in particular, but also men, as the show reminds us. Balfe narrates the series in a style that gives it the feel of a novel, as we hear her constant thoughts and reactions to the world around her. And I haven't even gotten to what will be the major attraction of this show and likely a breakout star from it in the form of Jamie Fraser, Claire's savior and eventual lover and second husband, played by the 6'3, red-headed, muscle-bound scot Sam Heughan, the long-suffering, brave and devoted hero who lives to love, rescue and please his soulmate Claire, as all the best romance novel heroes do. Heughan and Balfe have electric chemistry, and as the show and the books are ultimately about their star crossed love and evolving relationship, the casting of the pair was always key to the success of the series. They knocked it out of the park here, as everyone who watches this will be heavily invested in their romance and adventures together, and in love with Heughan by season's end (actually not even that long- girls, we'll all in by episode two).
The two leads carry the show with tremendous ease and sizzling spark, which they need since those sex scenes I mentioned really do take up a major part of the season and are key to investing in the relationship. Much like The Affair, I do wonder if the heavy focus on the romance means that the audience for a show like this is limited to mostly women, but that's not even a drawback as far I'm concerned. I guess I'm just warning the guys out there that this may not be for them, but it's definitely for me and for any other women who want to get lost in the romance of period Scotland and 6 foot tall hunks who'll ride to your rescue if ever you need it. Which Claire does, constantly, even though she's a capable and feisty heroine, but hey this is practically an alien planet she's living in and when you're always being pursued by one Captain "Black Jack" Randall, sadistic ancestor of husband Frank (and played in a dual role by Menzies) things are going to get ugly and out of control fast. Special mention here to Menzies, actually- the leads are fantastic, but Tobias Menzies as the redcoat Randall is a villain the likes of which I don't believe I've ever seen on television or film for that matter. He inhabits this brutal, yet still layered monster of a man in a fierce, commanding performance that will terrify you, haunt your dreams, and yet still dare you to take your eyes off of him every time he's on screen. Forget the rest of the show if it's not your thing- it may be worth watching for this character alone. It's an astounding, unforgettable portrayal.
Outlander is genre television done to perfection, even if it's material that will appeal to a certain kind of audience and not necessarily be for everyone (whether you just can't handle the violence or are not prone to the love story), but for the people it's meant for, again, it's like your favorite snack food that you just can't stop eating. Call it a guilty pleasure, but I'm guilty as charged and don't care who knows it. Bring on Season 2.