Premium cable may not hate women, but historically, it also hasn’t treated them particularly well — on either side of the screen. Female viewers might flock to “Game of Thrones” for complex, multifaceted characters like Brienne of Tarth, Margaery Tyrell and Arya Stark, but always with the understanding that at some point in any given episode, nameless, naked women will probably be gyrating in the background of a scene while conniving male characters monologue about political maneuvers.
For every assertive female in a premium drama ensemble, there are a dozen Ray Donovans, Rust Cohles and Leonardo da Vincis leading their own shows; men who drive narratives, solve problems and control destinies — both their own and those of the people around them. Conversely, “Homeland’s” Carrie Mathison may be a genius, but she’s also an emotional and sexual wreck — a woman who was so afraid of her capabilities, she’d rather sign herself up for electroconvulsive therapy than trust her own judgment. Daenerys Targaryen has evolved into the Mother of Dragons, but she began “Thrones” being sold by her perverse brother like chattel to a grunting barbarian who raped her. Intended or not, there’s a disconcerting trend in the premium drama sphere that implies women only become compelling once they’ve been victimized, while complicated male antiheroes proliferate across our screens. (Premium comedies fare far better with female leads, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
Enter “Outlander,” Starz’s self-professed attempt to capitalize on the “lack of female-skewing programs in the premium space,” per CEO Chris Albrecht. Unlike most cable dramas, “Outlander,” which premieres Aug. 9, features a self-assured female protagonist, World War II army nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), who is mysteriously transported back to the 1700s and becomes entangled with dashing Scottish warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). While Claire is surrounded by men, “Outlander” is unquestionably her story, told from the Englishwoman’s unique perspective as she wrestles with a number of personal and historical conflicts. It probably helps that “Outlander” was written by a woman — 62-year-old Arizona native Diana Gabaldon — who professes to have created Claire because, “I don’t like stupid women.” (Nor, indeed, women who are victims, if the book is any indication.)
Starz is banking on this relatable female lead and her creator to draw auds to the cabler, whose programming has thus far failed to generate the same level of critical or awards buzz as rivals HBO and Showtime.
“Claire, even in her own time, was not necessarily a normal woman,” Balfe admits of her character. “She’s quite timeless. She’s always been very feisty and modern in a sense. The ‘40s were a great time for emancipation for women because in the war, they were going to work and [doing] things that they hadn’t had the opportunity to do before. So that side of Claire felt quite accessible. And then going back to the 1700s, that clash of ideals, you don’t have to look too far to find that in our own time.”
“Her defining characteristic is that she’s intelligent,” says executive producer Ron Moore. “She’s smart and everything flows from there. Her strength comes from there. I think her sex appeal comes from there. Her wit, her resourcefulness, her skill set, it’s all because this is a very smart woman… That defines what I found appealing to the character in the book pages and we had to find an actress who conveyed that idea as well.”
Starz has established itself with a solid foundation of action-packed, male-focused fare like “Spartacus” and “Black Sails,” but Albrecht admits that the elusive female viewership could be their golden goose. “The female audience has been such an important part of the success of television, not just in primetime television or premium television but in daytime television; in children’s television,” he notes. “When women become attached to something like this, it’s pretty hard to pry them away from it. I think they are a much more loyal, less fickle audience than lots of other demographic segments.”
Calculated, perhaps, but savvy, given the overwhelming popularity of Gabaldon’s “Outlander” novels, which have sold over 20 million copies worldwide and inspired a fervent fan following since the first novel was published in 1991. Pre-premiere, the genre-defying series has already amassed over 47,000 Twitter followers and 247,000 Facebook “likes” through its official accounts.
While Albrecht concedes that part of the appeal of “Outlander” was “a presold awareness of it from the books,” he admits that he “had no idea how avid the fans were and how much social media activity went on around these books in their daily lives.”
Despite the steady assimilation of so-called “geek culture” into the mainstream thanks to shows like “Thrones” and “The Big Bang Theory,” there’s still a tendency for the media to label ardent fan interest in a property as “crazy,” especially when a fanbase is believed to be predominantly female.
Gabaldon is the first to point out that her readers run the gamut of age and gender demographics, because the “Outlander” books “can’t be categorized” as simple fantasy or romance or history. Still, she believes that for female readers, “the social aspect” of being a fan provides “a great deal of their enjoyment of the book. They want to share it with their friends, and talk about it at length, and do activities that are connected with it. They put together trips to go to Scotland. Men don’t do that sort of social activity. Consequently, the women fans tend to be much more visible, but the male fans definitely exist.”
Judging from the reaction at “Outlander’s” recent premieres in New York and San Diego, those fans are certainly satisfied by the finished product, but newcomers are harder to gauge — especially since Starz’s subscription numbers are calculated on a quarterly basis, meaning the cabler will have to wait to see whether the show will prompt an influx of new subscribers. (Latest numbers indicate Starz added 100,000 new subs in Q2.)
“Outlander” has plenty of crossover appeal, says Albrecht, thanks to its blend of “sci-fi, time travel and historical fiction,” but beneath all the battles and blood, the show is a love story at heart, focusing on the affection that grows between Claire and Jamie. The only obstacle to their flourishing attraction is the fact that Claire is already married to Frank (Tobias Menzies), a history professor with whom she’s only just reunited following the war, leaving our heroine quite literally torn between the past and her future.
While the show will have its share of sultry love scenes, Balfe believes the connection between Claire and Jamie goes far beyond physical attraction. “His emotional intelligence is what, for me, stands out. In this very rough and barbaric world, here’s a young guy who’s, emotionally, so much more modern. And he’s willing to learn and he’s looking for that guidance. And I think that’s the beautiful thing that they find in each other,” she says. “I truly believe that she was very much in love with Frank, but I think that this is something that she has never experienced before… Claire finds the life and the beauty in every moment. She finds herself in this time and she could fall apart pining for her husband, but in a way, it’s an instinctual ‘no, things have to keep moving on.’”
While Albrecht recognizes that many want to classify “Outlander” as Starz’s version of “Game of Thrones” — noting, “we should just hope for the kind of success that show has had in popular culture” — he believes that at its core, their series is simply “a good television show,” and hopes that the content alone will be enough to attract viewers who’ve never read the novels. “There are a lot of people that watch ‘Game of Thrones’ that never read the books and maybe have still never read the books. What you’d love to see in something like this is for each franchise, the books and the television show, to feed the other.”
Moore says he’s “not particularly worried about attracting new viewers. I think if people try it, they’ll get hooked and just keep coming back.”
The “Battlestar Galactica” producer recalls that Albrecht gave him one piece of advice before commencing production on the series: “Make this show for the fans and trust that anyone who’s not a fan will be swept up in the story the same way all the readers were.”
Time will tell if Albrecht’s faith pays off, but through this unique journey to the past, Starz has undoubtedly taken a bold step towards securing its future.
Watch the “Outlander” series premiere below.