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’Outlander’: Once more, time is of the essence

It sometimes seems as if TV’s many period dramas are simply there to make the viewer glad he or she wasn’t around for that particular era.

HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, for example, offers no reasonable upside to visiting Atlantic City or Chicago in the 1920s. Showtime’s Masters of Sex strips some of the appeal away from the late-’50s, particularly for independent women. And with the dreadful Halt and Catch Fire, AMC has managed to quell my desires for a 1983 do-over. Even Mad Men has artfully demonstrated that a roomful of style can’t compensate for the cultural constrictions of yesteryear.

The list goes on: pre-revolutionary New England; Da Vinci-era Florence, Italy; Los Alamos, N.M., during the Manhattan Project – no matter where (or when) you go, your TV seems to be telling you that you’re better off here and now.

Which is why I’m surprised that Claire Randall, the heroine of Starz’s elegant, cross-genre drama Outlander (which premiered Saturday), isn’t more upset when a strange encounter with a Druid standing stone yanks her out of a pleasant countryside vacation in 1945 and plops her smack in the middle of one of the Jacobite risings between Scotland and England in 1743.

It takes a bewildered Claire (Caitriona Balfe) a day or so to figure out where she is and what’s going on, but she handles it with steadfast British resolve. Last Claire checked, she was a combat nurse who had survived World War II and had just reunited with her husband Jack (Tobias Menzies). The couple made a romantic getaway to Scotland and decided one morning to spy on a local Druid ceremony at dawn. Oops!

Now Claire is stuck in the 18th century, under-dressed for it, fleeing from a redcoat dragoon patrol – the sinister captain of which looks disconcertingly like her husband; turns out he’s an ancestor.

She finds refuge with a band of swarthy but stouthearted Highlanders, who take her back to their castle and are impressed with her ability to put a dislocated shoulder back in its socket. It isn’t long before Claire is accused of being a British spy, but it’s her luck that the injured shoulder is attached to a hunk of a man in a kilt named Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), who’s willing to marry her and make her part of the clan.

Swell, then, but what about the husband she left back in the 20th century? Who? Oh, him. She’s working on that – trying to figure out a way to get back to the standing stone and rub against it to try to initiate a return trip.

Despite its pulp-romance trappings and slightly silly sci-fi premise, Outlander is serious business and it immediately behaves like a ship-shape television series. (And congrats to Starz for having the prescience to pick up an independence-minded drama just as 21st-century Scots are preparing to vote in next month on whether or not to separate from the crown.)

There’s something instantly likable about Outlander’s commitment to its themes and sensibilities. Adapted from a best-selling novel by Diana Gabaldon, I can’t think of a good reason why fans of the book won’t be pleased by what they see – but I’m sure they’ll let us all know, point by point, if they aren’t. Not having read the book, I find the show sort of charming and sufficiently thrilling.

There have been several more novels in the Outlander series since the first was published in 1991, which I take to mean that Claire should get used to living in a different century (downgrade) with a new husband (upgrade!). As with all protagonists who travel back in time, you have to wonder why she doesn’t lock herself in a room and invent penicillin, photography and the light bulb – for starters – but rest assured: She’s got her hands full enough as it is.

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