There are great reasons to watch Starz’s period romance drama “Outlander,” starting with the sex and sometimes ending with the sex. But for now, I’d like to praise what happens between the show’s main characters when they are clothed.
Okay, that’s only a small lie. Even the most serious-minded “Outlander” fan is at least partly tuned in/turned on every Sunday night in hopes of seeing more of the enthusiastic lovemaking (glowingly demonstrated by stars Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan) that propels this epic. It’s difficult to think of another cable series that wields its adult content — and the chemistry between its co-stars — so maturely.
Anyway, this is meant to be a piece about how “Outlander,” now in the middle of a satisfyingly strong fourth season, is the only show around in which a man and a woman — an 18th-century Scottish Highlander named Jamie Fraser (Heughan) and his time-traveling wife, a 20th-century English doctor named Claire Randall Fraser (Balfe, who just got a Golden Globe nomination for her work on the show) — have found a way to truly communicate. What more could we need from a TV series in 2018 than to see two adults persist against all odds by listening to one another?
For the record, other discerning viewers find plenty to dislike about “Outlander,” particularly around its handling of sexual violence — or the constant, close-call threats of it. For such a dumb-looking show, “Outlander” manages to start a lot of conversations and arguments.
Yet the show’s heart, I’ve found, is almost always in the right place. Despite a rocky and even abusive start to their relationship, Jamie and Claire found the kind of love that benefits from talking, from sharing information as well as their deepest feelings. It’s the one show where two people will actually stop in the middle of the action to check in, emotionally, and bring one another up to speed.
Not that they get a lot of time for that. Each week Claire and Jamie endure every possible calamity that can befall a white, heterosexual, married couple in the 1770s — at least one life-threatening crisis per episode. Together and separately they have so far survived the culture-shock of time travel along with war, torture, imprisonment, attempted sexual assaults, a rape (in a provocative twist, Jamie was the rape victim, not Claire), parenthood, separation, ocean crossings, palace intrigue, disease, grave injury, pirates, bandits, robbers, smugglers, witches, a hurricane and a shipwreck.
In Season 4, Jamie and Claire establish a small settlement in the mountains of North Carolina, just before the American Revolution. In addition to dealing once more with sneering redcoats and the stirrings of anti-British rebellion, there are other, uniquely American problems to face: angry mobs of aggrieved slave-owners out for a lynching; tentative relations with the Cherokee tribe across the creek; and a neighboring houseful of Lutherans with a deadly case of the measles. The list goes on — sometimes laughably so.
“Outlander’s” best moments are found in those smaller, more insular moments in which Jamie and Claire see the world through one another’s perspectives. TV is full of couples who misconstrue, raise volumes, ignore key issues, assign blame, gossip to outside confidants about spousal shortcomings, disappoint in the bedroom and storm out of the house a lot. The technical term for that is conflict and most writers of relationship stories would be lost without it.
Which is why, the more you watch “Outlander,” the more you see just how intentionally it veers from prestige TV’s frustrating parade of toxic, temperamental couplings — everything from “You’re the Worst” to “The Affair” to “Camping.” Jamie and Claire deal with all sorts of external melodramatic dangers, but together they might as well be gorgeous unicorns. They don’t bicker. They don’t interrupt one another. He doesn’t ramble on about battlefield heroics; she doesn’t start in with monologues about electricity and indoor plumbing.
Their presence within a shared present asks the viewer: When was the last time anyone really heard what you were saying?
"Outlander" is faithfully based on Diana Gabaldon's best-selling novels, an appealingly cerebral commingling of the romance, fantasy and historical fiction genres, with just a touch of sci-fi thrown in and a refreshingly modern take on relationships that rejects the usual Mars/Venus dynamic.
It’s not surprising that women make up most of the show’s fan base (even though the occasional “Outmander” finds his way in, and the series was developed by a male showrunner, Ronald D. Moore). I’ve seen groups of “Outlander” fans waiting outside news conferences for the show in Los Angeles, sitting quietly but excitedly in the lobby, hoping to catch a glimpse of the cast members or Gabaldon herself. It’s almost as if they are on security detail, making sure nobody mucks up their treasured characters and stories, which is perfectly understandable. Such devotion helped “Outlander” sustain relatively high ratings among cable dramas, with about 1.5 million viewers watching new episodes within the week.
Even with all its twists and turns and screen-steaming love scenes, “Outlander” continues to feel like a worthwhile progression. Jamie’s rebellious streak may tempt him to commit occasional (necessary) crimes, but his devotion to Claire has helped him evolve into a thoughtful gentleman of the Enlightenment.
And Claire is wise about what she tells Jamie about the future. As they take in a jaw-dropping western vista from a Carolina mountaintop, she speaks generally of just how far this new country will push forward — and the immigrant dreamers who will populate it. She helps him see the injustice of the slave trade that thrives all around them. She conveys the long (and correct) view of Native American rights. She asserts her own rights as a spouse and a professional; Jamie is quick to introduce his wife to strangers as an accomplished “healer.”
It’s easy to locate a feminist theme here, as many viewers already have: Jamie is a changed man because he met a smart, open-minded woman from the future who has challenged everything he once knew.
How could he not be improved by the experience — this giant, scarred slab of man-candy in a kilt, who once believed he owned Claire simply because he married her? And how can we not see the show as a lesson in brute reform?
Aye, but here’s the real beauty of “Outlander”: The exchange is mutual. She’s as much changed by him as he is by her. His masculinity is as instructive as her femininity. His wisdom complements hers. Even when their candlelit sex scenes are the main draw, the body parts that are most impressive are their ears.
Ask anyone who has traveled enough time with a significant other: Being heard as an equal partner is just as great — and sometimes better — than another roll in the hay.
Outlander (one hour) airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz.