“Outlander.” Starz continues its canny courtship of the often underserved female audience with a fine and drop-dead gorgeous adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s eight-book, internationally bestselling series.
Describing what it’s about makes it sound silly: A former World War II field nurse recently reunited with her soldier husband wanders into a ring of standing stones on the Scottish Highlands only to be transported to 1743 where she becomes a “guest” of clan MacKenzie. What, a one-period period drama is no longer enough? We have to mash up “Call the Midwife” with “Game of Thrones?”
Certainly Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) has the alabaster loveliness belying a fiery nature required of most every modern historical heroine and she quickly finds herself torn not just between two centuries but between two men as well. As much as she longs to see her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies), she is increasingly attracted to the handsome Highland horse whisperer Jamie (Sam Heughan).
But once “Outlander” gets past its rather tortured logistical setup — the Randalls are visiting the Highlands because Frank has Scottish blood, including an ancestor who plays the requisite sadistic British psychopath (see also Tim Roth in “Rob Roy”) — it’s hard not to get caught up in the uniformly well-acted, historically tantalizing and exquisitely rendered drama. A stranger in a strange land, Claire faces the universal issues of time travel: How to pass as a citizen of another time while finding a way home. As a woman, she must cope with the less enlightened views of those now around her, and as a healer, find a way to help without being branded a witch.
More important, perhaps most important, a woman who has just spent years defending her country against brutes and tyrants must face the brutal and tyrannical reality of that country’s history.
But it’s the land, and the time that mesmerizes most. Forget the “Downton Abbey” tours; we’ll all be heading for Scotland soon. Starz, Saturdays, 9 p.m.
“Legends.” It’s been a big year for producer Howard Gordon, who has helped bring us a third season of “Homeland,” a thrilling reboot of “24,” the ambitious if flawed “Tyrant” and now “Legends,” a solidly promising spy-thriller, and the first story in recent memory in which Sean Bean does not seem headed for an early death. (#Don’tKillSeanBean is part of the promo.)
Bean plays Martin Odum, a deep-cover operative for the FBI. As one would suspect, he is very good at his job, so good in fact he does not always follow protocol and risks losing himself in character, or “legends” as they are called in the agent world. As one would also suspect, his dedication has alienated him from his wife and child. (Calling all television writers: Would it kill you to give us a wife who understands what she is marrying when she weds a deep-cover agent/cop/CDC official?) while putting him at odds with his superior, Crystal (Ali Larter of “Heroes”).
There is also a chance that Odum is himself a legend, one of those psychologically manipulated super-agents screenwriters love so much.
Despite all this boilerplate and a more than passing resemblance to “Alias,” “Legends” delivers. Bean is the main attraction -- not only will he live, he will assume multiple identities while seeking his own, sorting friend from foe on his own team and bringing down the bad guys -- but his team is solid and includes the always welcome Tina Majorino whose Maggie one can only hope becomes the new Chloe. TNT, Wednesdays, 9 p.m.
“Dick Cavett’s Watergate.” Though created to mark the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation from the office of the president, this bright, breezy and deceptively insightful documentary is a welcome reminder that television’s power did not begin with the advent of cable.
Before Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, there was Dick Cavett, a comedian turned talk show host who, among other things, helped turn the Watergate scandal from an inner-Beltway issue to a national conversation. From the moment the original “plumbers” were caught, Cavett took hold of the story and did not let go, wryly interviewing politicians and pundits on the meaning and scope of the crime. His doggedness earned him Nixon’s personal vitriol and the opportunity to film from the chamber in which the Watergate hearings were being held.
Archival footage, combined with Cavett’s memories and interviews with the usual suspects (Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward and John Dean among them) make for a fine distillation of what the scandal that redefined not just our attitude toward politics but our coverage of it. It’s difficult to imagine even Stewart or Colbert getting the high-ranking, in-crisis guest to chat with such unscripted elan. Talk shows are now both more influential and carefully controlled. Watching “Dick Cavett’s Watergate,” it’s easy to see why. PBS, Friday, 9 p.m.
“The Honorable Woman.” Exploring the seemingly endless conflict between Israel and Palestine at a time when the bloodshed there is again in the news, Hugo Blick’s series both embraces and transcends its subject matter. The child of a Holocaust survivor turned pro-Israeli arms manufacturer, Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is attempting to steer her father’s company in a different, more peace-seeking direction.
Needless to say this causes tension on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the issue, while revealing all manner of MI5/CIA political intrigue. And Nessa, though honorable to the point of obsessive, is not without her secrets.
In addition to being a politically provocative thriller, and a showcase for the brilliant Maggie Gyllenhaal, “The Honorable Woman” is a splendid example of the brave new world of television. All of the marvels of the genre’s Age of Exploration are at work here: The film star and flawless international cast, the eight-episode, international co-production (Sundance and the BBC), the high-production location shots and gorgeous cinematography, the slow-reveal pace and political aspirations. They combine to make the series a thing of beauty that would not have existed 10 or even five years ago. Sundance, Thursdays, 10 p.m.