If you watch as much terrible television as I do, you’ll know that there’s a sweet spot between good trash and bad trash. Outlander is of the former category- a combination of romance, historical events and science fiction, it’s just the right level of ridiculous to be enjoyable.
Outlander is the story of Claire Beauchamp, a married nurse from 1945 who returns from the frontlines to take a second honeymoon in Scotland with her absent husband. After touching a standing stone, she travels back in time to 1743 and finds herself caught up in the Jacobite rebellion.
A very large part of Outlander’s appeal is the romance, I’ll admit it. Sue me- I like dreamy Scottish men whose opinions are inexplicably progressive, ahistoricism be damned. Outlander’s romantic lead is Jamie Fraser, a charming, kilted Adonis who convinces Claire that good sex in 1743 is better than electricity or plumbing in 1945.
When he’s not busy telling Claire how wonderful she is, Jamie likes to whisper prettily to horses and shed a single, manly tear about how much he loves Scotland. He’s essentially my dream boyfriend from when I was 13.
Yet this kind of fantasy is important, and Outlander’s biggest achievement is that it’s a triumph for the (heterosexual) female gaze. Claire’s establishing character moment, for example, is when her husband Frank gives her oral sex in the ruins of a castle. It’s nothing if not bold, and her sexuality is never demonised. In many respects, Outlander is frivolous entertainment, but it’s one of the few shows on TV that doesn’t write its sex scenes with heterosexual men in mind.
Its high points extend beyond its romantic content. The landscapes are gorgeous- an episode of Outlander is essentially an hour-long boost for Scotland’s tourism industry. I’d be hopeless on a Scottish moor, but I still want to whisk myself off to the Highlands and loiter pointedly around standing stones. The costume and set design are also fantastic, especially in the French court scenes.
Claire’s time-travelling antics, particularly in the second season as she attempts to prevent the doomed Jacobite rebellion, are fascinating. We’ve had plenty of period dramas about the world wars and Victoriana before, whereas Outlander sheds light on an era of British history that we hear about less often.
Despite the ubiquitous presence of sexual violence in the period drama, Outlander’s treatment of a male rape victim’s trauma and slow road to recovery is deserving of some praise. The character’s pain is not glossed over, nor is he ever blamed (though his own self-hatred is explored and deconstructed).
Outlander is not the subtlest show, nor is it the best written. Yet in several important ways, it provokes a conversation and challenges what we’re used to seeing on television. A female protagonist, progressive themes and beautifully filmed sets all make Outlander stand out from the crowd. It’s trash, but it’s wonderful trash.