Tuned In: 'Outlander' goes from page to small screen

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There are fans of the “Outlander” books by Diana Gabaldon who eagerly await the Starz adaptation and there are TV viewers who had never heard of the books until the TV show came along.

Odds are one’s familiarity with “Outlander” (or lack thereof) will color reactions to this romantic fantasy series that begins unspooling the first eight episodes of its first season at 9 p.m. Saturday. (Another eight episodes from season one will begin airing in January.)

For fellow non-novel devotees, “Outlander” will likely seem like a snore at the outset. The first episode, in particular, spends a lot of time laying pipe for the episodes that follow, establishing the character of Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a World War II combat nurse on her long-delayed honeymoon with British intelligence officer husband Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies) in the Scottish highlands. While there she visits some ruins and is somehow transported back in time to 1743, where she’s found by highlanders, including hunky Scottish warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). Claire also meets her husband’s evil ancestor, Black Jack Randall (also played by Mr. Menzies).

While Claire tries to find her way back to her time, she also grows closer to Jamie over the first six episodes made available for review.

Viewers drawn to star-crossed romance are most likely to get absorbed in “Outlander,” which benefits from beautiful production design — great location work with filming in Scotland — but the show also suffers from some egregious exaggerations, especially the mustache-twirling Black Jack Randall, who couldn’t be more like Satan if he had pointy red horns.

“Outlander” does improve episode by episode. Situations change so Claire goes from being reactive to becoming an active participant in the happenings around her. But the series always falls back on Claire’s narration, which probably won’t bother fans of the book — this dialogue often sounds ripped from a novel — but may seem like a crutch to non-devotees. (Even beyond the narration, “Outlander” is super talky, so viewers expecting nonstop action may be disappointed.)

“Outlander” does best in not making Claire’s choice between men an easy one. A lesser piece of entertainment would lean into pairing Claire with Jamie, but executive producer/writer Ron Moore (Syfy’s “Battlestar Galactica”) never makes it easy on Claire or viewers. Frank may be a less romantic hero than Jamie, but Frank is also smart, sophisticated and progressive for a man of his time. (He may hate seeing Claire head to the front lines in a World War II flashback, but he doesn’t try to stop her.)

The series also has some fun with Claire’s knowledge of future events in history — she frets about the fates of her new highlander friends when she ventures onto land that will become a killing field in 1746.

The series is occasionally difficult to follow due to Scottish brogue; closed captions are recommended especially in episode three where “one ear nailed” sounds like “one-year nailed,” which is likely to create some confusion among viewers during what should be a tense scene.

In addition to the presence of Mr. Moore, who leads the creative team and wrote the first two episodes, another reason for hope that “Outlander” may continue to improve can be found in the list of the show’s other writers, who include prime-time veterans Ira Steven Behr (“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) and Toni Graphia (“Battlestar Galactica,” “Carnivale”).

Non-Starz subscribers curious about “Outlander” can catch the first episode via on demand and online at starz.com/outlander.

Goodbye, Lawrence Welk

Pittsburgh PBS station WQED will drop its long-time Saturday night reruns of “The Lawrence Welk Show” after the station’s August pledge drive ends.

“The program was very expensive for us to broadcast since it had to be purchased separately from regular PBS programming,” explained WQED spokesman George Hazimanolis. “Because of financial constraints and significantly less donor support for ‘Lawrence Welk,’ we can no longer air the program.”

Beginning Aug. 30, “Antiques Roadshow” reruns will air at 7 p.m. Saturday.

‘Price Is Right’ auditions

Pittsburghers are encouraged to “come on down” and audition to be a future contestant on CBS daytime mainstay “The Price Is Right.” A casting call will be held Tuesday 11 a.m.-7 p.m. at the Meadows Racetrack & Casino, 210 Racetrack Road, Washington, Pa.

Two local participants from the audition will be selected for free trips to Los Angeles and guaranteed spots in the show’s studio audience with one getting a bidder’s spot on Contestants’ Row. All applicants must be legal U.S. residents age 18 and over.

Channel surfing

NBC renewed summer sitcom “Undateable” for a 10-episode second season. … TV Land renewed “Soul Man” for a fourth season to air in 2015. … NBC renewed comedy “Welcome to Sweden” for a second season. … E! renewed plastic surgery mistakes series “Botched” for a second season to air in early 2015. … A&E’s “Intervention” is getting revived in early 2015 for 15 new episodes to air on sister network LMN. … Cable’s FYI ordered a second season of “Married at First Sight” to air in 2015. … Disney Channel renewed “Girl Meets World” for a second season. … James Van Der Beek will star opposite Patricia Arquette in CBS’s “CSI: Cyber,” due at midseason. … Illusionist Michael Grandinetti, a graduate of Duquesne University and West Mifflin High School, will appear in this week’s episode of The CW’s “Masters of Illusion” (8 tonight, WPCW, Channel 19).

Tuned In online

Today’s TV Q&A column responds to questions about “Extant,” “Crossbones” and Rachael Ray’s talk show. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on “Game of Thrones,” “Garfunkle & Oates,” “The Knick” and “Extreme Guide to Parenting.” Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

This week’s podcast includes conversation about recent prime-time premieres. Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.

TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.

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