Because of all the great amazing television currently happening, no one person knows about every show currently happening. Which means, sometimes, you have to explain the unknown and unusual, like Starz’s freshman series “Outlander,” to the curious.
Here is how a lot of conversations I have about “Outlander” go, with people who haven’t watched it…
CURIOUS PERSON: What’s the show about?
ME: This woman from the 1940s gets sucked back in time to the heyday of the Scottish Highlanders and has to figure out how to survive in a more primitive time with some majorly complicated and dangerous politics in play.
CURIOUS PERSON: Ah. Okay.
ME: Also, there’s a lot of sex.
CURIOUS PERSON (NOW MORE THAN CURIOUS): Oh really?
This curious person, clearly, isn’t reading a lot of the commentary out there right now about the show. Here are some headlines from recent think pieces and reviews of “Outlander” (all of them excellent, for the record):
“Outlander” shows full male nudity — and laughs in the face of rape (Salon)
“Outlander” Did Something Radical Again (Huffington Post)
Outlander Is Back, and It Still Has the Best Sex on Television (Racked)
“Outlander” is based on a series of books written by Diana Gabaldon, and if you’d read even just the first one prior to the show’s premiere, you’d have been aware that after a certain key plot point, the show would move from voice-over-heavy period drama to voice-over-heavy period drama with a crap-ton of sex scenes.
But to be clear, what’s notable about “Outlander” and sex isn’t the fact it’s a sexually graphic TV show — sex on TV is old news at this point, with no shortage of examples to invoke. (Remember “Red Shoe Diaries”? That show totally existed for a while.) What’s made “Outlander” groundbreaking is its celebration of Claire’s (Caitriona Balfe) sexuality; I’m trying to avoid using the phrase “feminist porn,” but there’s no denying that the show is deeply invested in depicting female pleasure during sex. In the first three episodes since the mid-season premiere, Claire has repeatedly been brought to the heights of ecstacy by Jamie (Sam Heughan) via a number of means. It’s a common way to either end or begin an episode.
And on the one hand, “Outlander” has taken excellent advantage of a niche found lacking of late — equality between the sexes means things like equality between female and male orgasm on screen, and “Outlander” is doing the Lord’s work in maintaining that balance. On the other hand, it sometimes seems like the only thing we can talk about, when it comes to “Outlander,” is the fact that it’s a show packed with sexual pleasure.
But “Outlander” is NOT “Red Shoe Diaries” — it aims to be a well-told story, not an opportunity to hear David Duchovny narrate soft-core pornography. So, how is it holding up? What is “Outlander” without the sex?
We technically have an answer to that question, as the show is not wall-to-wall boobs and butts. The first half of Season 1, after the pilot, is relatively chaste until Episode 7, “The Wedding,” at which point sex scenes in “Outlander” become not just de rigeur, but occasionally key moments for… well, maybe not plot development. But certainly the complicated relationship between Claire and Jamie is as important to the show as the inter-clan conflicts, women being put on trial for witchcraft and an invading force of British soldiers led by a sadistic Redcoat (who just so happens to be an ancestor of Claire’s 1940s-era husband). Even now that things have been consummated between them, our central couple has a lot to contend with.
Last Saturday’s episode, “The Watch,” is the first episode since Jamie and Claire’s wedding that didn’t feature some pretty explicit “doin’ it” — probably the closest thing viewers got to eroticism was when Jamie’s sister Jenny (Laura Donnelly) compared pregnancy to intimate relations with a man. (The week before, in the episode “Lallybroch,” the most explicit moment came not during a Claire and Jamie moment, but in a flashback to an attempted rape that featured full-frontal male nudity.)
In the place of graphic sex came further intrigue and drama related to Jamie’s precarious status in Scottish society; the complicated politics that make him both a “laird” and a fugitive outlaw have now led the show down a dangerous path both for Jamie, technically a criminal, and for fans tuning in because, wow, those are some hot sex scenes.
But without those hot sex scenes, does “Outlander” hold up? The answer, at least in regards to what we’ve seen so far, is (thankfully) very well. While the bulk of romantic fiction derives its drama from either the delaying or the thwarting of a relationship’s consummation (by, you know, doin’ it), “Outlander’s” continued interest in the politics of life in 1700s Scotland is a massive aid to keeping the show vibrant. (Also, the use of voice-over, in comparison to the first two episodes, is somewhat more subdued — which is a blessing.)
At this point in the season, Jamie and Claire are settled in their relationship. Jamie knows about Claire’s complicated relationship with linear time, and Claire has fully committed to the 1700s, rejecting the opportunity to return to her original time stream, so that she can remain with Jamie. As mentioned before, there are wrinkles to their relationship (like, say, a woman born in the 1900s doesn’t think this era’s stance on intra-marital corporal punishment to be appropriate), but like most romantic couples caught up in bigger struggles, it’s their union in the face of tremendous odds that goes a long way.
Starz of course is notorious for looking to amp up the sexual content of its series — for example, the creators of the tragically canceled “Party Down” have said that they were “encouraged” to figure out ways of amp up the comedy’s MPAA rating. But while “Party Down” would have likely functioned just fine without the boobs and swears, “Outlander” wouldn’t be the same without the sex. And that’s just fine. It’s not sex for the sake of sex; it’s fully embedded into the make-up of the show. Which makes it all the more exciting to watch.