As a television show that aired in 2014, I understand that I’m a very late arrival to the period drama Outlander. Yet despite being a British-American production filmed in Scotland, the show has only been aired on television channels in the US, Canada and Australia, whilst British audiences have only been able to watch with an Amazon Prime subscription.
Part of this was due to the reluctance of British broadcasters to show the adult content of the show, and it’s taken three years for Channel 4’s More 4 to take it on. In real time, the series is about to debut season 3 but last week I sat down in front of the telly to see the very first episode.
My thought process during that hour was as follows:
1.A boring partner is an excellent narrative device
When we first meet Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) and her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies), we instantly know that they’re not the romantic
central couple we’re meant to root for. Frank suffers from that beloved trope, known professionally as Disposable Fiance, a well meaning figure who the heroine is attached too, but who fortunately is too boring or ridiculous to really feel guilty about when he inevitably gets ditched.
Whilst they travel on their romantic second honeymoon around Scotland after the war, it becomes clear that Frank is the sort of guy to throw away the guidebook and insist that he can provide you with more ‘interesting’ facts than the locals could possibly know. It becomes a relief later on when Claire leaves him behind. Who knows, will he even notice when he’s too busy educating the local reverend? Possibly not.
2. It knows its audience (aka exposition or sexposition?)
There is one thing going for Frank and Claire’s relationship and it’s the commitment to al fresco and al hotel romantic trusts. The Outlander books, first published in 1991, fall happily into the romance novel categories, suited in amongst the books with Fabio on the cover. That means that in the adaptation, a good amount of that time is assigned to romantic scenes of passion, so yeah, don’t watch this with older relatives if it’s going to be a bit awkward.
If that is totally your thing however, then that’s fine. I’m just hoping that it’s going to turn out better than another romance novel set in 1700s Scotland, that I once picked up in a hostel (lesson learned – not all backpackers have good reading choices).
3. The accents are… interesting
Naturally as a Scot, my view of accents is going to be pretty strict. However, even being less pernickety for a minute still didn’t stop me from getting irritated at James Fleet and Tracy Wilkinson completely overdoing it as the reverend and hotel manager respectively. Fleet spent his teen years in Scotland but it seems that returning to that accent can be a tricky thing. There is such a thing as the ‘Scottish movie accent’, which dials the enunciation up to 11 – this was a great and terrible example.
However, much props to actual Scots Graham McTavish and Sam Heughan, both of whom play Celtic warriors and fortunately use their natural accents.
4. This is literally a VisitScotland advert
I don’t know if you’ve seen a VisitScotland accent, but Outlander does a pretty close impression of it in episode one. Everything is mystical, people do spiritual ceremonies in forests and there’s never any rain. I probably don’t need to tell you how inaccurate and cheesy that is, but tourists do indeed love the idea.
Personally, I prefer the portrait of Scotland from Trainspotting, but that’s not going to help the tourism numbers (and er, don’t watch that link if you’re sensitive about swearing).
5. Waiting for the chemistry now
It was a fairly slow debut episode for Outlander but things instantly got interesting once handsome warrior Jamie Fraser showed up in his kilt. That’s what I signed up for here, and in classic romantic drama style, Jamie and Claire spent the first few scenes together bickering and staring at each other. She even gets to rescue him a bit. Classic.
I will be watching the next episode, but probably not writing about it. It’s a decent first episode anyway, with the same lack of self-awareness that greatly benefits Poldark and Versailles. It’s cheesy, but so far Outlander seems like ideal weekday night fare.
Let me know your thoughts on the series but please, no spoilers!