The title of this post is a bit of a misnomer … Outlander only finished the first half of its first season, moving now into a longish break, as is more and more common.
There are times when someone writes a piece that is so much in line with my own thinking that I don’t know why I’d bother to add my two cents worth. Other times, it’s not so much my agreement with an essay that matters (although it doesn’t hurt) as the fact that someone has said what a lot of people are thinking, or are on the verge of thinking, and said it in such an elegant and interesting way that their piece immediately becomes the first place to look when approaching a topic.
And so, yesterday, the great Maureen Ryan wrote “'Outlander,' The Wedding Episode And TV's Sexual Revolution”. It’s an instant classic, one that inspires not mere comments but links, as if the link itself will take you into a better place than reading my blathering. In short, read Mo’s piece before you read what follows, because that is the important thing here.
I had a few things to say about the first several episodes of Outlander, but (and this is not a knock on the show itself) once Ryan posted her piece, she became the focus of my thoughts. I’ll jump ahead to her conclusion, but don’t assume you’ve learned everything by simply reading this quote … in fact, if you haven’t already, go back and read her essay right now.
"Outlander" is not for everyone, and that's fine. But it's among the shows doing something revolutionary in their depiction of how adults relate to each other, in bed and out of it. A few decades after the actual sexual revolution, they're revolutionizing how female sexuality is depicted -- even honored -- on TV. By being conscious of women's desires, these shows make it clear that they are conscious of women's humanity.
I admit that I came at Outlander with some skepticism. To say it is not my type of show is an understatement … my wife started watching the pilot episode without me because she assumed I had no interest in it. Again, Mo Ryan: “It is an adventure tale, and that might be one reason for the people who don't watch it to dismiss it. More reasons some critics and viewers might shove it aside: It's on Starz; it's based on a book that women like; oh no, someone said the word ‘romance’ (that last one may be the dopiest reason of all).” The single reason I was interested in checking the show out was that Ronald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica fame is the showrunner. (Hell, I made it through an entire season of Helix because Moore’s name was attached to the project, even though his participation is limited.)
It is a good thing that Outlander has little in common with BSG, other than the always-welcomed music of Bear McCreary. It is pointless to compare the two series. Those who have read the Outlander books seem convinced that Moore is treating the source material with respect (which was also pretty much true for Battlestar). I can say that it has been easier to stick with Outlander than it was to do the same for Helix, although the latter is more “my kind of show”. I am not sure why that is, which is one reason among many that I found Ryan’s treatise so fascinating. In explaining some of the ways Outlander is revolutionary, she brings to the forefront aspects of the show I knew subconsciously but hadn’t thought about specifically. That is one of the best ways criticism illuminates.
I know that the kind of female hero I most enjoy is, well, like Starbuck on BSG: a woman who is as good as any man at being a man. Claire on Outlander is plucky … she thinks well on her feet, uses brain over brawn, and in general is a better role model than Starbuck if you care about that stuff. There is violence on the show, but it is not a show about violence. It was startling to see, for one episode, warnings not only about language and violence and nudity but also “rape”. But when the rape attempt occurred, there was never any point of view other than the woman’s … it was shown in contrast to the sexuality between people Ryan describes above, not as part of a continuum.
If this means men won’t want to watch, well, they need to reconsider. As Moore says (in an interview Ryan cites in her piece), “I read the book, I loved the book … When my wife and producing partner gave me the book, they weren't like, 'Oh, here’s a romance novel. See what you can do with it.' They said, 'Here’s a really good book.' I don't see any reason why men won't watch this show.”
Outlander isn’t perfect, at least not yet. The middle episodes tended to drag, some characters are more fun to watch than others, and to my ear, at least, the Scottish accents are at times indecipherable. But it’s a fine start, in the B+/A- range.
And what about Masters of Sex? I mention it mostly because Season Two just ended, and because it was mentioned briefly in Mo’s essay. Masters of Sex rises and falls with its portrayal of Masters and Johnson, which puts a lot of pressure on Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. I’ve liked them both over the years … Caplan is a particular favorite. Scenes between the two actors are always good, and the one episode that basically just put the two of them in a hotel room (“Fight”) was the best of the season. The other characters don’t tend to be nearly as interesting as the leads, though, and I’m not sure showrunner Michelle Ashford knows which of those characters are the most fun. (She’s working with a story line that “really happened”, which informs some of her choices, and she has reasons for structuring things as she does.) I’d love to see more of Annaleigh Ashford’s Betty, but I admit I don’t know how they can work her in without being entirely awkward about it … she does get more screen time than most of her cast mates. Ultimately, Masters of Sex is a lot like Outlander: it’s a pretty good show, it might get even better, its best episodes are as good as you’ll find, but overall, it’s not great yet. Grade for Season Two: A-.