August 17, 2014

THE SKED Pilot + 1 Review: “Outlander”


OUTLANDER:  Saturday 9PM on Starz

A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot and the production of regular episodes: writer/producers may be hired or fired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics start to rear their ugly heads. Tone, pace, casting, and even story can change. Here at SHOWBUZZDAILY, we look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.

Previously… on OUTLANDER:  Claire Randall (Caltriona Balfe) is, shortly after the end of World War II, a former Army nurse vacationing in Scotland with her ex-Intelligence Officer historian husband Frank (Tobias Menzies)–until she drops out of time and finds herself living in 1743, among the Scottish rebels against the British crown, most notably a particularly good-looking rebel named Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan).

Episode 2:  The second hour of Outlander, written by series creator Ronald D. Moore (based on Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling novels) and directed by John Dahl, was set almost entirely in 1743, aside from a few fragmentary flashbacks, which gave the episode the feel less of a time travel tale than a more conventional fish out of water story–Claire might as well have been a visitor from Europe or the colonies as from the future.  The first episode had ended with Claire, Jamie and his band of rebels arriving at Castle Leoch (which in 1945 Claire had visited with her husband), and much of this hour was concerned with introducing the characters who will presumably become part of Claire’s new life.  They included the menacing Laird Colum (Gary Lewis) and his equally sinister brother and chief advisor Dougal (Graham McTavish), both of whom think she’s a British spy; kindly housekeeper Mrs. Fitzgibbons (Annette Badland); and Claire’s first 18th-century friend, local healer and Wiccan Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek).

A great deal of the episode was turned over to developing Jamie’s backstory (and not incidentally featuring his bare chest), as he related to Claire in several lengthy scenes his imprisonment and flogging at the hands of the British.  Jamie’s heroism was further advanced when he volunteered to take the punishment the Laird and his brother were going to mete out to a girl who’d been reported by her father as disrespectful–a girl Jamie didn’t even know.  There were also hints of intrigue involving the paternity of the Laird’s son.

It was all rather leisurely paced, as Moore is apparently enjoying having an entire 60-minute hour to play with each week, as compared to the 42 minutes or so permitted by a commercial network.  The photography by David Higgs was lovely, and Balfe is an engagingly spirited presence, but so far there’s nothing particularly striking about Outlander, which is playing like a well-produced historical romance.  By the end of the episode, the Laird had decided that Claire knew too much to leave the castle, so we and she appear to be settling in for a long stay, with Claire as the unwilling castle physician.  (Claire was more surprised than any viewer could have been when she was prevented from heading back to Inverness and her hope of returning to the site where she’d traveled through time, and yet that was presented as though it was a startling twist, the only one in the episode.)

If Moore’s intent with Outlander was to show that he could handle a genre utterly different from his celebrated work on Battlestar Galactica, that’s been accomplished, but the result at this point is far less compelling than his contributions to science-fiction. Outlander is a smooth piece of work, yet apart from the occasional narration reminding us that Claire knows about automobiles and modern underwear, it’s strictly, to use the pejorative term, a chick flick.

The ratings for Outlander don’t matter much for now, since like just about every other Starz series, it received an instant Season 2 renewal (although for a single 13-episode run next time, rather than the 2 8-episode arcs of Season 1).  In its regular timeslot airing, the series had a solid enough start by Starz standards, which the network inflated with its usual practice of throwing the series on every conceivable platform and affiliated network during opening week.  In any case, the series has attracted a fair amount of attention for Starz, which is what pay-cable networks really care about.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."