Unquestionably, “Outlander” isn’t helped by the volume of extraordinary TV drama out there right now. Many of us approach new series with a sense that, if it’s not as good as “Game of Thrones,” or “The Americans,” or “Orange Is the New Black,” it’s not worth pursuing at all; our queues are already quite crammed. But that’s an awfully high standard for most series to reach, and while they may be perfectly OK, they drop a notch or two in light of the competition.
The new Starz show, based on the best-selling time-travel novel series by Diana Gabaldon, is such a show. It’s not bad, but then it’s not good enough to inspire loyal viewership when there are so many other compelling series to watch. Readers of the novels may feel a stronger impulse to lock in; for me, the show is mildly entertaining at best, with a few pluses — unusual story lines, particularly the one set after World War II, some gorgeous scenery, and one or two likable performances — counterbalanced by a few negatives. Least tolerable among the negatives: the occasional Harlequin Romance moments that have you waiting for the lass to shed her corset while the evening wind blows through Fabio’s hair.
The lass in question is Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), who is reunited with her husband, Frank, in Scotland after World War II. She served as a nurse and he served as a spy, and they both have wounds that need healing and bonds that need rebuilding. This material is slow-moving but effective in its sad mood, as it plays out on the square face of Frank, played with appealing stoicism by Tobias Menzies. Midway through the premiere, Saturday at 9 p.m., Claire visits a ring of sacred stones, gets swept back in time to 1743, and is dropped among a group of Highlanders. She wants to return to her husband, but, well, she is also drawn to the handsome, tender Scottish hunk Jamie (Sam Heughan).
It’s during Claire’s scenes with this stock character — surely the word “strapping” was in the description in the casting process — that the vibe tends to devolve into tawdriness. As she nurses him by the fire in the second episode, the show could almost double as a perfumed soap commercial. Balfe is appealingly mysterious in the 1940s scenes, but she is far less interesting as she becomes inflamed by passion and fear in 1743, a period in which she sometimes looks uncannily like Poppy Montgomery from “Unforgettable.” Menzies also appears in the 1743 plot, as cruel British officer Black Jack Randall, and he brings with him some sorely needed acting chops.
“Outlander,” which has been adapted for TV by Ronald D. Moore of “Battlestar Galactica,” relies too heavily on Claire’s
voiceover. “I wanted it to be a dream but I knew it wasn’t,” she tells us about being trapped in the past. Ah, we hear you, Claire, but don’t you be forgetting about your Highland hottie. He’s in his fancy kilt tonight and waiting just for you.