A lot of my shows are ending soon/have ended already (Mad Men, Parks and Rec, Falling Skies, Breaking Bad… ok, now I’m getting sad), so I’m always excited to replace them with something as good or better. It always seems a daunting prospect.
Outlander is a new novel adaptation from Starz, based on a series of the same name authored by Diana Gabaldon. I’ve not read any of the series, though a good friend recently pointed me towards the 2nd and 3rd books. As she said it, the first book is really about establishing place, character, and tropes before it gets at the meat of things.
The story’s premise is quite simple: Outlander is a time-slip story about Claire Randall, a former British Army nurse putting her life back together with her husband after WWII until she transported to the middle of the 18th century while on vacation in Scotland. It follows her attempts to get back to her husband and her own time. That said, the Wikipedia article indicates that the series overall is not just a time-slip story but instead covers multiple genres including “elements of historical fiction, romance, adventure and science fiction/fantasy.”
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the impetus for adapting this series is part of a trend in historical fiction and premium cable in general and a reaction to Game of Thrones in particular. While many series have come out of an interest in historical fiction, fewer have been adapted from genre-blurring works. As a big fan of both, they didn’t need much convincing for me to give the show a chance.
In that vein, the way the show adheres to and at other times defies the conventions of just these shows has made it an interesting addition to the list of those my lady and I watch together.
First, a tip of the hat to historical accuracy or, at the very least, earnest attempts in that direction. Eighteenth century Scottish dress and mores are not really in my wheelhouse, but if I’m to believe at least half of what I have read from reputable sources, they’re making a good effort. That said, Chels has more than once expressed concern for modern attitudes tempering the portrayals, most especially in Claire’s nicer than expected clothing as bestowed by her captors. I’m willing to accept that perhaps she is kept in nicer garments because of the pretense that this is still a guest, rather than a prisoner, but she is more skeptical. YMMV. In either case, the show makes for properly immersive historical world building, even if at times it messes with the facts.
One of the items in early reviews that most captured me was that the show featured prominently a sex-positive female protagonist. So many shows are all about male gaze and I was looking forward to a change of pace. I got it, to an extent, though perhaps some judgment must still be reserved.
The sheer volume of male gaze sex scenes in premium cable television had become a turn off of late. As a liberal cis-male, I’m almost tired of saying “enough already” to female nudity. Sex is an integral part of being a human and has a place in our fiction. So too is defecation a normal human function. Funny how that hasn’t similarly invaded television. Unfortunately, as sex is over used, we get to a point where we almost can’t tell what is meaningful use and what isn’t. Or perhaps worse yet, we get so sick of these depictions that we don’t even want to allow for the good uses.
I say we not merely for the like-minded but specifically for the people with whom I most often watch TV. Chels has hit a threshold already and I can’t blame here. Sex scenes on the big premium channels have tried to equate male and female torso nudity. Maybe one day we will get to that, but it isn’t the world we live in now. Right now, there is a continuum and at best female nudity from the waist up is somewhere in between male torso nudity and genitals, and it is definitely closer to the latter. JackOSpade (the other person with whom I watch a lot of TV, most especially GoT) is somewhat more selective, seeing as suspect every scene in every show but a little more willing to accept that it might have a use. Of course, he is often wrong, but it makes sense that another cis-male would be more willing to accept a sex scene, given that these scenes are basically meant for us. That said, he and I have both abandoned shows for the overuse.
The issue, besides a false equivalence, is often in sexualization. Far, far more often than not, female nudity is sexualized, even in instances of sexual violence, while male nudity is a joke or meant to discomfort the audience. I was almost excited to see male nudity proceed female nudity on The Leftovers until it became clear that the man was mentally unbalanced. Then, just one episode later, female nudity and YUP, it’s supposed to be sexy.
I digress a bit on this point because it is something that is bothersome as we watch more and more shows on premium cable and I don’t think I’ve expressed this concern before.
In the first three episodes of Outlander, there is at least one scene of the protagonist topless. In the fourth and most recent episode, no such scene. Most of these scenes are needless. While the pilot uses its nude scene—in addition to another sexual scene devoid of nudity—to establish the character as sex-positive and progressive, subsequent scenes haven’t served much of a purpose. Thankfully the show also works to sexualize one of the lead male roles (the show’s only looked, says Chels), though it is to an obviously lesser degree. So far, I have been happier with these changes, if not quite satisfied.
But there is something further to complicate the mess. I don’t think that they are wedging these scenes in for the typical “hook-the-18-to-34-year-old-males” angle. Instead, the writers and directors for Outlander don’tquite seem to trust either themselves or the audience. Outlander made heavy use of voiceovers in the pilot episode to deliver a lot of exposition. While not strictly necessary, I can understand the want to do this. The only problem is, they’ve continued to use it. It’s the worse part of the show by far. Every episode explains things directly to the viewer, spoon-feeding and thus undermining an otherwise pretty intelligent show. They’ve also made some strange musical choices to somewhat ham-fistedly push viewer emotions in one direction or another.
Outlander doesn’t need these nude scenes any more than it needs the voiceover or awkward music. Claire’s clothing choices, discussion topics, and comportment have been ample to convey the idea that she is progressive and sex-positive and that she is likely to be a disruptive influence at Castle Leoch.
It is an interesting show with a lot of promise. The first season is half through but they received an order for a second season of 13 episodes next year. Let’s hope the showrunners and writers are listening to the dialogue generated. It would take so little to shave off these extraneous elements from the show and restore execution to the story’s promise.
Are y’all listening?