It sometimes seems as if TV’s many period dramas are simply there to make the viewer glad he or she were not around for that particular era.
HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” for example, offers no reasonable upside to visiting Atlantic City or Chicago in the 1920s. Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” strips some of the appeal away from the late ’50s, particularly for independent women. And with the dreadful “Halt and Catch Fire,” AMC has managed to quell my desires for a 1983 do-over. Even “Mad Men” has artfully demonstrated that a roomful of style can’t compensate for the cultural constrictions of yesteryear.
The list goes on: pre-revolutionary New England; Da Vinci-era Florence, Italy; Los Alamos, N.M., during the Manhattan Project — no matter where (or when) you go, your TV seems to be telling you that you’re better off here and now.
Which is why I’m surprised that Claire Randall, the heroine of Starz’s elegant, cross-genre drama “Outlander” (premiering Saturday), isn’t more upset when a strange encounter with a Druid standing stone yanks her out of a pleasant countryside vacation in 1945 and plops her smack in the middle of one of the Jacobite risings between Scotland and England in 1743.
It takes a bewildered Claire (Caitriona Balfe) a day or so to figure out where she is and what’s going on, but she handles it with steadfast British resolve. Last Claire checked, she was a combat nurse who had survived World War II and had just reunited with her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies). The couple made a romantic getaway to Scotland and decided one morning to spy on a local Druid ceremony at dawn. Oops!
Now Claire is stuck in the 18th century, underdressed for it, fleeing from a redcoat dragoon patrol — the sinister captain of which looks disconcertingly like her husband but turns out to be an ancestor.
She finds refuge with a band of swarthy but stouthearted Highlanders, who take her back to their castle and are impressed with her ability to put a dislocated shoulder back in its socket. It isn’t long before Claire is accused of being a British spy, but it’s her luck that the injured shoulder is attached to a hunk of a man in a kilt named Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), who’s willing to marry her and make her part of the clan.
Swell, then, but what about the husband she left back in the 20th century? Who? Oh, him. She’s working on that — trying to figure out a way to get back to the standing stone and rub against it to try to initiate a return trip.
Despite its pulp-romance trappings and slightly silly sci-fi premise, “Outlander” is serious business, and it immediately behaves like a ship-shape television series. (And congrats to Starz for having the prescience to pick up an independence-minded drama just as 21st-century Scots are preparing to vote in September on whether to separate from the crown.)
There’s something instantly likable about “Outlander’s” commitment to its themes and sensibilities. Adapted from a bestselling novel by Diana Gabaldon, I can’t think of a good reason why fans of the book won’t be pleased by what they see — but I’m sure they’ll let us all know, point by point, if they aren’t. Not having read the book, I find the show sort of charming and sufficiently thrilling.
There have been several more novels in the “Outlander” series since the first was published in 1991, which I take to mean that Claire should get used to living in a different century (downgrade) with a new husband (upgrade!). As with all protagonists who travel back in time, you have to wonder why she doesn’t lock herself in a room and invent penicillin, photography and the light bulb — for starters — but rest assured: She’s got her hands full enough as it is.
Given its creative pedigree, I expected a few more surprises than I got from “The Knick,” a 10-episode drama premiering Friday on HBO-owned Cinemax. It’s set in 1900 and stars Clive Owen as Dr. John Thackery, a temperamental, drug-addicted, but brilliantly experimental chief surgeon at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital (a.k.a. the Knick).
The pieces and parts are certainly all here, particularly if you’re accustomed to how premium dramas treat the deplorableness of living conditions in old New York: Health care has come a long way to this point but not nearly far enough for these poor wretches, providing plenty of gross-out scenes involving, say, Caesarean sections or the cauterization of wounds using fritzy, newly installed electrical implements.
Ambulance drivers are gruesome wagoners on the prowl for the sick and injured, whom they drag to hospitals for what amounts to a finder’s fee. Corruption is institutionalized and remorseless; racism is a given, as is sexism; filthiness is both a practical and existential concern.
Owen’s Dr. Thackery turns out to be just one more in a long line of TV’s talented but tortured antiheroes plagued by personal demons that, frankly, aren’t that interesting this time around. André Holland co-stars as Dr. Algernon Edwards, an African American surgeon who has been working in Europe to much acclaim, only to find himself relegated to second-class citizen when he’s hired as the Knick’s new No. 2 surgeon, against Thackery’s wishes. Juliet Rylance co-stars as Cornelia Robertson, the hospital’s strong-willed social worker who also runs the board of trustees — thanks to the fact that her shipping tycoon father (Grainger Hines) funds the hospital’s operating budget.
Though creators and writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s previous work includes some comedies (and one heartfelt whale-rescue movie called “Big Miracle”), filmmaker Steven Soderbergh directed all 10 episodes. The network sent seven of them in advance, so I settled in for what I hoped would be an entertaining afternoon.
As one episode after another failed to thrill me, I thought I could subsist on “The Knick’s” attention to details, as I have with so many other period pieces. But sooner rather than later, “The Knick” felt like a rerun, and the symptoms of déjà vu hadn’t improved by Episode 5. It’s as if someone looked up instructions for making a period cable-TV drama and followed them to the letter — and wound up with something like a “Boardwalk Empire”-style story arc set in an old-timey “E.R.,” only with a much weaker pulse.
Someone call me if its condition changes.
A previous version of this story misidentified Claire’s husband in “Outlander.” This version has been updated.
(one hour) premieres Friday
at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.
(70 minutes) premieres Saturday at
9 p.m. on Starz. You can also watch the first episode for free at www.starz.com.