Let's talk about voice-over. It's a storytelling device with a long and proud history stretching back to the beginnings of film, used to beautiful effect by legendary writer/directors such as Billy Wilder and Joseph L. Mankiewicz in the 1950s, and no shortage of other writers since. Voice-over offers the writer an opportunity to introduce alternate perspectives, inner insight and potentially, even an unreliable narrator -- when used well, it has real potential to heighten, complicate and enlighten a visual narrative.
But when it's not used well, it can be deadly. In this case, it might just murder Starz's "Outlander."
Based on the popular book series by Diana Gabaldon, and developed for television by respected showrunner Ronald D. Moore, "Outlander" is a promising series, with a promising cast and a premise with unique appeal. Claire (Caitriona Balfe), a young woman who's just survived serving as a nurse during World War II, is visiting the Scottish countryside with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies), but finds herself whisked back in time to the 18th century. There, she not only encounters an ancestor of Frank's, but the comely young Jamie (Sam Heughan), at which point a love story stretched across centuries gets complicated.
What does Claire think about this? Don't worry, you'll find out. Because it's not an exaggeration to say that a good 25 percent of the first episode is overlaid with the most heavy-handed use of voice-over I've seen so far this year -- hell, maybe this decade. It's the rare scene that isn't accompanied by Claire's internal monologue on the events unfolding, and it's the rare scene which wouldn't be improved by that monologue's removal.
Voice-over transitions the viewer to flashbacks. (Never mind that dozens of shows have figured out how to introduce flashbacks without voice-over.) A voice-over statement like "Frank was interested in history"? It's then followed by Frank reciting some history. Claire voice-overs during drives through the countryside. Claire voice-overs while walking. Claire voice-overs while shopping. Claire will not. Stop. Talking.
It's not even that the writing of the voice-over is fundamentally bad. It's just, by and large, overused and unnecessary. It gets to the point where during the latter of the first episode's two sex scenes, Claire muses that "Sex was our bridge back to one another -- the one place we always met." But we can see that they're connecting with each other. They are literally connected, at that moment, by their genitals.
It's enough to make you crave the relative silence of other shows -- "The Leftovers" may be sad and grim, but it at least trusts the viewer to understand that when two people are making love, they are in the same room.
Moore's involvement with "Outlander" makes little sense in the context of his best-known work, the gritty and engrossing 2004 reboot of "Battlestar Galactica." But as a writer on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," Moore was largely responsible for the creation and development of Klingon culture. Klingons, when you think about it, are an awful lot like Highlanders, and Moore's attraction to Gabaldon's books thus makes a fair amount of sense.
You know what "Star Trek" and "Battlestar Galactica" didn't feel the need to use all that much? Voice-over. And "Battlestar Galactica" featured a society of human-looking single-deity-worshipping evil robots. "Outlander," by comparison, is much more simple. And yet. The voice-over persists.
There are a few truly beautiful moments captured by director John Dahl in the first two episodes. These scenes include the mysterious and strange pagan ritual that might be responsible for Claire becoming unstuck in time (copyright Kurt Vonnegut), as well as the many moments featuring the lush Scottish countryside where "Outlander" was filmed. You know what those scenes do not feature, all that much? Voice-over.
The voice-over isn't necessarily my only complaint with the show. It also spends slightly more time in the year 1945 than necessary, hovering at the precipice of executing its premise for just past the edge of too long. When you know a character is about to travel through time, but have to wait 40 minutes for the actual event to occur, a certain level of impatience has a way of building up. Especially if the reason you know that something's about to happen to this character is because you heard her say something about it in the voice-over.
There's a great show in here somewhere, don't get me wrong. Balfe is a compelling lead, and her chemistry with Heughan is more than strong -- which is very good news for "Outlander," because if you've read any of the books, you know that said chemistry is essential for sustaining the episodes to come. Overall, there's a great deal of potential. It's just a shame that it's in danger of being smothered to death.
Is this voice over addiction a symptom of being too closely adapted from a book written in the first person? Is it a lack of editing on the writer's part? Is it a lack of faith in the viewer to comprehend a high-concept premise? Imagine me looking out the window, my chin on my fist, as those questions are spoken by my unmoving lips.
"When a show fails to get off the ground, it's always a shame," the reviewer narrated. "But if this crib death cannot be prevented, it will truly be a tragedy."
Grade (with voice-over): B-
Grade (without voice-over): B+