The ‘Outlander’ Obsession: How the Starz Series Became a TV Smash Hit
This is an excerpt from TV Guide Magazine’s Outlander Forever Special Collector’s Issue, which is available for international pre-order online at OutlanderForever.com and available nationwide on newsstands now.
Before Outlander even started steaming up our TV screens on August 9, 2014, the sexy saga had superfans. They were the deeply devoted readers of author Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling time-travel romance series. The frisky franchise already numbered seven volumes when Starz announced in June 2013 that its fiery couple, Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser, were coming to television. Early buzz was deafening — and it has never let up. Call it the ecstatic moan heard round the world.
But that initial fervor was no guarantee the epic drama would turn out to be the cultural phenom it is. After all, TV had never seen this kind of genre mashup: a love story with a sci-fi twist, plus some historical fiction thrown in. How would that fare in a lineup of procedurals, medical shows, and family dramas? Adding to that, the first book alone had 600-plus pages, rich with descriptive passages, action, quirky characters, multiple time periods. Taking it successfully from page to screen was going to be no small feat.
Swipe right to executive producer Ronald D. Moore, then most famous as the showrunner of reimagined sci-fi favorite Battlestar Galactica. He’d also worked on multiple iterations of TV’s Star Trek franchise. Not only could he build fantasy worlds, but he could merge them with grounded, real human stories. That combo has been the kilt pin to Outlander success season after season.
When the show debuted, critics raved and viewers swooned. Shot on location in Scotland (historic castles! snowy mountains!), it boasted meticulously researched period costumes by Terry Dresbach (Moore’s wife, who’d introduced him to the books) and no-expense-spared sets by production designer Jon Gary Steele. Sealing the deal: the chemistry between leads Caitriona Balfe and Scot Sam Heughan. Book fans suddenly had a lot of company.
Female viewers saw themselves in Balfe’s smart, sensual Claire. Yes, she was a woman in jeopardy thrown into a strange world with narrowly prescribed feminine roles, but that didn’t crush her outspoken nature. In the gripping action scenes, she saved Jamie as much as he saved her. Jamie was a new kind of romantic hero: a warrior living by an ancient honor code yet willing to learn and let his mind be changed by a modern, older woman. (He could teach a 21st-century man a thing or two!)
The sex scenes were like nothing anyone had ever seen on TV — or anywhere. They weren’t shot to appeal to the male gaze. There were no unrealistic gymnastics undertaken just to show off the naked female form. Claire’s pleasure was as important as Jamie’s, and she wasn’t shy about asking for what she wanted — and giving directions. The first time the couple slept together, Moore insisted that the scene be written and directed by women.
Texts flew: You have to watch this show. Starz subscriptions rose, Gabaldon’s book sales bumped up, and vacations to filming locations became so popular that Scotland’s tourist board dubbed it “The Outlander Effect.” Fans gathered en masse at Comic-Con panels and conventions. (Men showed up in kilts!) Devotees adopted proud nicknames: “Heughligans” and “Caitriots.” Multiple award nominations and wins followed.
Long stretches between seasons were nicknamed the “Droughtlander.” This year’s was blessedly broken up by Starz’s delightful Men in Kilts: A Roadtrip With Sam and Graham, a Scottish travelogue with Heughan and costar Graham McTavish, who played Jamie’s uncle Dougal MacKenzie. For those still thirsty, there’s Heughan’s new whiskey brand, Sassenach — which also happens to be Jamie’s nickname for Claire.
Each time the show comes back, something new reignites viewer passions: decadent Parisian court intrigue; the tragic end of Highland culture at the Battle of Culloden; pregnant Claire’s return to the 20th century and husband Frank (Tobias Menzies); the Frasers’ reunion; their daughter Bree (Sophie Skelton) and her boyfriend (now husband) Roger’s (Richard Rankin) trips through time to join them in the New World.
But if there’s one welcome constant, it is Claire’s enduring journey. She’s a leader, just as Outlander is in the trend toward more female-led shows. Since its debut, we’ve seen everything from mystery Big Little Lies to historic drama Harlots, dark comedies Dead to Me and Fleabag and Michaela Cole’s edgy I May Destroy You. And the prolific Gabaldon shows no signs of slowing; her latest series entry is No. 9, Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone, which arrived in November 2021. The show’s faithful are sure to raise a glass to that because, as Jamie himself might say, when it comes to Outlander, we canna get enough.
Outlander, Season 6 Premiere, Sunday, March 6, 9/8c, Starz