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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Z NATION Not One to Visit

Article first published as Z NATION Review on Seat42F.

Z Nation Syfy Cast

With The Walking Dead being the most popular show on television, it’s surprising that it’s taken this long for another network to try to bank on the success. This week, SyFy becomes the second channel to tackle zombies in their new hour-long series Z NATION. The world has been overrun with the undead and a small group of survivors come together to try to find and distribute a cure.

As a TV reviewer, I watch a TON of television. It’s always been hard to pick one favorite show with all of the great content currently running, but for the past year or two, I’ve been able to say that The Walking Dead is first in my book. The reason I, and I believe so many other people, like it is not for the zombies themselves; I myself cannot stand zombie films unless they are comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. No, it’s the complexity of the characters and the deep questions of ethics and morality that make the show so enticing.

Unfortunately, Z NATION doesn’t even attempt to maintain that aspect of The Walking Dead, to the point of having one character say out loud that he hates moral dilemmas in the pilot episode. Instead, the new drama follows the path of most zombie movies. There’s really bad destruction and fast-moving, murderous monsters everywhere. Strangers form in a tribe purely by coincidence, and their purpose is large-scale, possibly world-saving. This makes it even more unrealistic than just have zombies in the program does, and far less enjoyable.

Z NATION is entertaining, I will give it that. Many a scene will keep viewers on the edge of their seats, biting their nails. Lots happens in a short span of time, and a number of individuals die, including one I really did not expect yet, based on the press for the show and the story structure. It’s definitely going to be a gory series with shock-factor scenes, including one involving an infant, and one primarily concerned with pumping the adrenaline of both the characters and the audience.

Z NATION just doesn’t have depth. The plot is extremely simple to understand and so are the characters. Motivations are stated out-right, and there really isn’t anything that sets it apart from films in the genre. Being on a television budget, it can’t reach the special effects levels of a theatrical release, so it’ll always be destined to be inferior, making one think twice before sitting down to watch it.

There is also a lot of cheese. One of the main players, Citizen Z (DJ Qualls, Legit), is in a government base somewhere with access to radio and computer equipment. For much of the pilot, he’s concerned with making contact with Lieutenant Mark Hammond (Harold Perrineau, Lost), who is charged with the important task of protecting the one man who seems immune to zombie bites, Murphy (Keith Allan, Rise of the Zombies). This makes sense, giving Citizen Z an important purpose. But suddenly, at the end of the hour, he slips on some sunglasses and goes into radio disc jockey-mode. Isn’t that taking things a little too lightly? And doesn’t he have any co-workers left to put a stop to the nonsense?

Other than these three, the rest of the players seem like zombie chow. Charles Garnett (Tom Everett Scott, Southland) is a typical leading man, so maybe he’ll stick around for a bit. But there is little to distinguish the other supporting players, and given the structure of Z NATION, it seems likely a number of them will be killed off in the coming weeks. One or two may become fan favorites, but most will probably wind up dead.

Thus, Z NATION is not a great show. In a crowded television landscape, and with a much better product on AMC, I don’t know why this series would gain a big following, but I guess we’ll see when Z NATION premieres this Friday at 10 p.m. ET on SyFy.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

RED BAND SOCIETY Trying to Heal Network Television

Article first published as RED BAND SOCIETY Review on Seat42F.

Red Band Society Cast FOX
Red Band Society Cast : Octavia Spencer, Nolan Sotillo, Griffin Gluck, Zoe Levin, Charlie Rowe, Ciara Bravo, Brian Bradley, Dave Annable

It’s not often a broadcast network makes a show that feels totally different than just about everything else on television. FOX has done that with RED BAND SOCIETY. The dark dramedy about a group of sick teenagers who live in a hospital has shades of Degrassi, but the unique setting and challenges they face puts a different spin on the coming-of-age genre. Considering that films with similar themes have popped up recently (see: The Fault in Our Stars), it makes sense to explore these issues in a longer-run format.

A show such as RED BAND SOCIETY needs a good group of young actors, and six mostly-unknowns fit the Breakfast Club-esque bill well. Jordi (Nolan Sotillo, Prom) is the new kid on the block, forced to room with bad boy Leo (Charlie Rowe, Pirate Radio). Leo’s best friend is horny Dash (The X Factor contestant Astro). We’ve got the bitchy cheerleader, Kara (Zoe Levin, The Way Way Back), and the mousy girl with an eating disorder, Emma (Ciara Bravo, Big Time Rush). Charlie (Griffin Gluck, Private Practice) narrates the story from his coma bed, secretly visited by the father (Thomas Ian Nicholas, American Pie) who isn’t allowed to see him.

The mix of personalities is pretty good. A lot of boxes are checked, but the performers are all decent enough to sell the product, other than Astro, that is, who is nearly as unlikeable here as he was in the reality show in which he competed. But overall, while somewhat predictable, the relationships are compelling enough to keep the story going, as the kids individually pull the viewer’s heartstrings.

Of course, there are sappy scenes, even in hour one. A particular heart-to-heart between Jordi and Leo is obviously coming, and RED BAND SOCIETY delivers on that promise, asking for some pathos at the conclusion of a bit of fun. In this, it’s emotionally manipulative, but seemingly not in a malevolent way.

There is a staff watching over them, of course. Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (The Help, Mom) plays the perfect “scary bitch” with a heart of gold, Nurse Jackson. She is offset by Rebecca Rittenhouse as bumbling, naïve Brittany. Surely the two of them will grow over time with one another’s help, much as the kids do. Rounding out the adult contingent is Dr. Jack McAndrew (Dave Annable, Brothers & Sisters), rocking the grey hair as he performers his duty with intelligence and compassion.

Maybe it’s a little simplistic to have such heroic healthcare providers, but RED BAND SOCIETY is a feel-good drama, and thus, needs characters to root for. The teens suffer enough from the viruses ravaging their bodies; they don’t require antagonistic grown-ups bringing them down, too. Instead, we get as cheery a picture as possible under the circumstances, which, while perhaps a tad realistic, makes the show quite watchable.

The wild card for me in this pilot is Ruben Garcia (Griffin Dunne, House of Lies, Dallas Buyers Club). Although not a main character, Ruben is the one adult shown as a patient. One of the kids mentions he’s a rich hypochondriac who will leave his fortune to the hospital, and we see him helping out the youngsters with their schemes. Clearly, the writers must put him here for a reason, so what is it? Will he help someone get through their emotional struggles, or provide an answer to a problem later on?

I’m sure RED BAND SOCIETY won’t be the best new series of the fall, but it is far from the worst, and at least it’s not just copying other series the way so many do. The message portrayed is one many viewers will connect to, or at least feel for, and since there’s no other optimistic drama like this running on the Big Four right now, it may find its niche. I certainly hope it does.

RED BAND SOCIETY airs Wednesdays beginning September 17th on FOX.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

DOCTOR WHO Stops Off In "Sherwood"


‘Doctor Who’ Review – ‘Robot of Sherwood’

Article first published as 'Doctor Who' Review - 'Robot of Sherwood' on Blogcritics.

In this week’s installment of the BBC’s Doctor Who, Clara (Jenna Coleman) asks The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) if she can meet Robin Hood. Despite The Doctor’s insistence that Robin is merely a legend, the TARDIS does manage to take the duo right to the mythological outlaw in Sherwood Forest, circa 1190-ish. The Doctor is immediately suspicious, and as they poke around this new world, soon discover that not all may be as it seems.

I have to admit, “Robot of Sherwood” disappoints me, primarily, because it goes beyond the conceivable. As The Doctor says, Robin Hood is a character, not a real person. Yet, they find him intact right where the story says he should be. Not only is Robin (Tom Riley, DaVinci’s Demons) present, but he’s accompanied by his pals Little John (Rusty Goffe, Stupid), Friar Tuck (Trevor Cooper), Alan-a-dale (Ian Hallard, An Adventure in Space and Time), and Will Scarlett (Joseph Kennedy, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll). They are the spitting image of the Merry Men in the novel, and their nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingtham (Ben Miller, Primeval), invites them to an archery contest that unfolds exactly as one familiar with Robin Hood remembers.

Now, Doctor Who frequently pushes the boundaries of reality, and that is part of its charm. That is, as long as the explanation fits, sticking to the rules of the franchise. My problem is that something matching the fictional work so well should not exist on its own. Either there should be significant differences, the legend distorted over the years, or an alien or technological explanation that might have created this world. Neither ends up being the case.

To rub salt in the wound, The Doctor is intent on proving exactly what I’ve stated in the preceding paragraph, and he does indeed find a robot army led by the Sheriff. These guys have the Robin Hood tale in their computer banks, and are mimicking the story. This would be fine if the robots were behind everything, but in the end, Robin and his fellows are completely real, even if the Sheriff’s men are not. That’s just too much to stomach, even for fans of the spacey-wacey, timey-wimey stuff.

Doctor Who's Robert Troughton as Robin HoodThere are a couple of cool parts in “Robot of Sherwood.” While flashing through the various Robin Hood incarnations within the robots’ computer, viewers may catch a glimpse of Patrick Troughton (the Second Doctor) among the images, as he once played Robin Hood. The computer also makes mention of Missy’s promised land, though the woman herself is nowhere to be seen. These references are neat for the sharp-eyed, but not nearly enough to distract from the bad plot.

I also enjoy some of the dialogue and jokes. The Doctor and Robin’s attempts to one-up each other are amusing, The Doctor clearly being jealous of the way Clara sees Robin. Robin and The Doctor’s sword / spoon duel is fun, and the bickering in the jail cell works well, too. If the story were a little better thought-out with a conclusion that makes sense, “Robot of Sherwood” could be a fun romp, even if it falls short of the greatness Doctor Who can be. But alas, without a good ending, it leaves the whole thing feeling flat and weak.

In the end, what we’re left with is a stand-alone fantasy that might please children, but will neither stand up to the test of time nor satisfy the fans looking for Doctor Who‘s next epic journey. The series is wont throw in episodes like this from time to time, and usually they are at least middling in quality, but this one borders on unwatchable. “Robot of Sherwood” is not unprecedented, but that isn’t exactly a point in its favor. Hopefully, the show will get back on track next week.

Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET on BBC America.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

OUTLANDER Worth the "Rent"

Article first published as OUTLANDER Review Season 1 Episode 5 Rent on Seat42F.

Outlander 2014

In this week’s installment of Starz’s OUTLANDER, Claire (Caitriona Balfe) sets out on the road with the clansmen, intent on using her time away from the keep as an opportunity to escape. That is, until she pays attention to these folk and learns more about then. Similarly, my first instinct is to dismiss “Rent” as a slow hour that doesn’t get to much, but the more I consider the events, the more I realize the importance of revealing politics, history, and the implications of time travel.

In the first part of “Rent,” Claire witnesses the payment of taxes as expected, but then sees Dougal (Graham McTavish) collect more coin the evening after, leading her to suspect he is skimming money for his own greedy purposes. Dougal seems content to let this impression stand. However, the more Claire hears, even in the nearly-incomprehensible Gaelic, the more she realizes that Dougal’s motivations are not selfish at all, but a collection to fund just rebellion. The Scots want to restore who they see as the rightful heir to the throne.

The way “Rent” plays this out is very interesting. Like Claire, we don’t understand Dougal’s words, as the Gaelic in OUTLANDER is not subtitled. The show is told through her point of view and we must rely on her conclusions, even if they don’t line up to reality. The show has us thinking ill of Dougal and the others until Claire discerns the truth, and like her, our minds are immediately flipped by the greater understanding.

What is the writer’s purpose in doing this? Is it to point out how often preconceived notions are wrong? Is it just a clever storytelling device? Or is it the way to brilliant craft a compelling hour of television so that viewers are not only drawn into the tale, but learn something about the world and themselves through it? Most likely, it is a combination of all these things.

Dougal and Claire’s new friend, a lawyer who counts the money, are content to let Claire believe they are criminals because they are more afraid of what she will do if she knows the truth. They don’t want her to think they are treasonous against the ruling monarch, just in case she should be re-united with the Red Coats and tell on them. This makes sense, allowing her to misinterpret, even if it casts them in a bad light, to protect themselves.

That’s a sign that they don’t trust her. Why should they? She came into their midst, a foreigner who often doesn’t see eye-to-eye, and they don’t accept her as part of their group. Yet, over the course of “Rent,” this begins to change. Once Claire sees their true intentions and respects them for it, they respect her. The clansmen fight for her honor, whether they believe in her or not, and she is able to join in their risqué jokes.

Which brings us to the climax of “Rent.” The English soldiers come for Claire, knowing she may very well be being held against her will by the Scottish clan. The episode ends without revealing whether or not Claire will stick up for Dougal et al, but I think it’s pretty obvious that she will, even if she has to lie about whether or not she’s a prisoner. After all, by now she understands them and is growing fond, even perhaps of jerky Angus (Stephen Walters). Surely she would not say anything to risk any of their lives?

We see Claire try to protect the clan this week as she talks to her new pal about the rebellion they are collecting for. She knows it’s doomed to fail and fears for their lives, but voicing her suspicions just make them all more wary of her. They don’t know that they’re on the losing side, so they see her warnings as threats or an attempt to undermine their determination. Claire wants to help, but it isn’t seen that way.

This is one of the inherent problems with time travel. Even should Claire seek to preserve the past, something many a person may do when finding themselves back in time, she really has no sway. Her motivations seem more to save lives than worry about the time stream, which makes sense, given her character. But there’s no good way for her to prevent ill from befalling them. Unless she could get them to believe she came from the future, a seemingly impossibility that she wisely doesn’t even attempt, she can do nothing to stop their coming demise.

The one person Claire may be able to confide in is Jamie (Sam Heughan). They grow closer this week when he sleeps outside her door to protect her. He’s far too gentlemanly to come inside, even when she offers, but the charge between them is obvious. They are definitely destined to be a couple, though there’s no rush on that, since Claire is still very much in love with her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), even though he won’t be born for nearly two centuries. Still, the seeds are more than planted and we see it growing here. And Jamie will probably believe Claire when she inevitably gives him her entire narrative.

“Rent” uses Frank sparingly, with just a couple of key flashbacks (flashforwards?). I still think OUTLANDER would be better without including Claire’s time in the 1930s and ‘40s, as the story could be told without it. However, at least this episode doesn’t make these too large a part of the proceedings, only using them to emphasize a few points.

Overall, “Rent” gives us a lot to think about, and thus is a worthy entry for a series that is fast becoming a favorite of mine. While it may start slow, the second half ramps up its importance, and the hour ends up being a pivotal one in the season-long arcs. The cliffhanger ending makes me wish we didn’t have to wait seven days to find out what happens, but at least tonight’s viewing is quite satisfying.

OUTLANDER airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET on Starz.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

THE LEAGUE is "Sitting Shiva" For Shiva

Article first published as 'The League' Review - Season Premiere: Sitting Shiva' on Blogcritics.

FXX’s The League kicks off its sixth season this week with “Sitting Shiva.” One of the members of the fantasy football league dies and the others gather for the funeral, which happens to be concurrent with this year’s draft. Trying to pick a team and observe tradition for the deceased is hard while dodging family members and friends. Which makes for the funniest draft since the one in the delivery room, several seasons ago.

The League is much like network sister series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in that it revolves around a group of guys and one girl, who wants to be one of the guys, picking on one another and being inappropriate, with hilarious results. The League is less gross and the characters are both more likeable and more relatable than IASIP, with actual emotional bonds underlying the cruelty. But it is as amusing as the long-running hit, having earned a following in its own right and its place on the network.

Yes, it’s incredibly wrong to make fun of death. Yet, somehow The League gets away with it. From the moment Ted (Adam Brody) is killed, through the sex in the morgue and the flash-mob-of-one, jokes land pretty steadily throughout the half hour. It’s almost Seinfeld-like in how cold the characters can be towards outsiders, even as they stay affectionate towards one another. But it also has that edgy, modern sensibility that makes it very watchable.

The dynamics of The League have shifted in “Sitting Shiva.” Jenny (Katie Aselton) is more accepted than ever, thanks to her win last year and current responsibility of planning the draft. Her husband, Kevin (Stephen Rannazzisi), is in a shame spiral due to his Sacko loss, making him the butt of everyone’s jokes because he’s an easy victim. This frees Andre (Paul Scheer) to stop being the one always dumped upon, and despite their efforts to bring him back down, he’s now the smooth “Teflandre.”

There is a sense that balance in the clique will eventually be restored. Yet, the way that The League constantly mixes up the chemistry is part of what keeps it fresh. Certain individuals will have their ups and downs, but these are plot-driving devices, not permanent shifts. There’s an overall consistency and continuity amid the weekly stuff that keeps it interesting.

“Sitting Shiva” makes an obvious play on the word ‘Shiva’ with a short i sound, referring to the Jewish mourning practice, and Shiva with the long e sound, the name of a female classmate of the group’s and the title of their league trophy. In retrospect, this seems like a necessity for the show to eventually get to this, and thus, the death should not be a surprise. Yet, it still elicits several chuckles when you hear the word and its varied pronunciations discussed on screen.

One thing I have complained about in the past is the overuse of NFL cameos with athletes that cannot act. Sometimes The League makes good use of its guest stars, such as Cameron Jordan and Jordan Cameron at the funeral in “Sitting Shiva.” But other times, it does not, such as pretty much everyone in Kevin’s opening dream sequence this week. Sure, some of The League‘s viewers are also football fans who get excited by these appearances, as many in the cast and crew do. But not all of us are, and given that the writers known how to effectively use some of them, the others drag down the episodes quite a bit by comparison.

Still, even with some bad cameos, “Sitting Shiva” is a memorable half hour and a great way to begin a new season. It sets up some arcs, reinforces favorite elements of the show, and is frequently fantastically funny. Six years in, it shows no signs of staleness, and I look forward very much to what else it has in store this season.

The League airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FXX.

Friday, September 5, 2014

DOCTOR WHO's Introspective Trip "Into the Dalek"

Article first published as 'Doctor Who' Review - 'Into the Dalek' on Blogcritics.

Episode two of Doctor Who‘s eighth season is markedly better than the first. Now that The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) has settled into his new body, he can start to figure out who he is. This week, in “Into the Dalek,” The Doctor struggles with the question of whether he is a good man, after he encounters his most hated foe (a Dalek of course), who seems to be nice. Shrinking himself, he heads into the Dalek’s body to figure out the malfunction, and in the course of the story, there’s as much self-examination as external investigation.

It makes sense that The Doctor has chosen now to ponder whether he is good or not. He’s recently faced his greatest challenge, his various incarnations teaming up to commit genocide and possibly save trillions of lives. He’s also in a new form, head flooding with memories from the previous versions, some good, some bad. The Doctor is trying to process all of this to determine his way forward.

In the season premiere of Doctor Who, Clara (Jenna Coleman) wonders if something has gone wrong when the new Doctor appears old and wrinkled. Combined with the reflection in “Into the Dalek,” it seems he agrees with her. This Doctor regrets some of what he has done and wants to make up for it. He is just having trouble finding the way to do so. This turmoil is illustrated in his appearance.

It’s a good thing he has Clara, then, his ‘carer,’ as he calls her, so he doesn’t have to care. The Doctor can be quite cold, especially when traveling by himself, which we’ve seen in past personalities. The Twelfth Doctor spends only a few weeks alone before picking up Clara in “Into the Dalek,” but his emotional level is low in this installment, especially where the Daleks and human soldiers are concerned, having much trouble finding empathy, even for death. It takes Clara to make him think of others and do the right thing, thereby proving her importance.
 
Unfortunately, there is a setback when the Dalek looks into The Doctor’s soul and sees hate. No matter how much The Doctor tries to do good, which Clara says is the point, he can’t overcome his baser instincts. The result is that The Doctor unleashes a Dalek back among their race that will systematically kill his own people. This may be good news for the Daleks’ would-be victims, but it also is another thing for The Doctor to feel bad about.

He also refuses to take Journey Blue (Zaw Ashton, Fresh Meat) with him, away from the fighting, although she’s probably a good person, because she is a soldier. The Doctor is letting his petty hangups get in the way of someone else’s happiness. For every step forward, there’s another one back. But, oh, what a compelling journey!

The episode also explores the character of Clara. We see her as a teacher both in the classroom and out, helping The Doctor reach his own conclusions, rather than giving him the answers. This part of her personality is one that has not previously been played up to a huge extent, but now we see exactly the type of person she must be in her normal life, and it’s one that The Doctor needs right now. I still may not like Clara, but she is well used here, and the right woman for the moment.

We get glimpses of her flirting with a new teacher, Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson, Emmerdale, The History Boys). He is a soldier, which means The Doctor wouldn’t approve of him, but he is similar to The Doctor in that he regrets the violence he has done, making him worthy, perhaps even more so because he is in touch with his feelings. He’s sort of a simpler version of the title character in a younger, more attractive body, which makes him pretty much perfect for Clara, likely still missing her ‘hunky’ Eleventh.

I’m intrigued by the brief scene featuring Missy (Michelle Gomez) in “Into the Dalek.” Why did she only rescue one of the soldiers that died? What is her plan? How is she saving these people? ‘Heaven’ has to be code for something, but I can’t imagine what. I look forward to how Doctor Who unravels her mystery.

There are a few problems with “Into the Dalek.” I can’t believe Colonel Blue (Michael Smiley, Luther) would let The Doctor go get Clara before going into the Dalek when he is so concerned about security just moments before. The body itself is a bit cheesy, like in other movies that have a similar premise. But overall, there is so much great character stuff that I really enjoyed it. I love the way the Daleks are brought back, fresh yet again, and the peek at Clara’s ‘real’ life.

Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET on BBC America.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"The Gathering" A High for OUTLANDER

Article first published as OUTLANDER Review Season 1 Episode 4 The Gathering on Seat42F.

Outlander 1x04 Pictures 03

This week’s entry of Starz’ OUTLANDER is called “The Gathering.” As all of clan MacKenzie gathers to pledge their allegiance to Colum (Gary Lewis), Claire (Caitriona Balfe) plots her escape. If she can map the castle and its guard patterns, might she be able to find the stone that could possibly send her home again? There’s a lot of uncertainty and plenty of obstacles standing between the out-of-time nurse and her home.

Claire is smart, but she is still out of her depth. This becomes clear as, despite all the precautions and planning she does, she still puts herself in a no-win scenario, as Jamie (Sam Heughan) tells her when he catches her by the horses. She’s lucky it’s Jamie, who kindly escorts her back to the keep, rather than just about anyone else, who wouldn’t look so favorably on the prisoner making her escape.
Jamie isn’t really part of the clan, though, as you may remember. He’s staying with his uncle, Colum, to hide out from the English that are after him, but he doesn’t quite belong to this group. His own outsider status, combined with his obviously-growing feelings for Claire, likely influence the way he handles the situation.

Claire’s bumbling puts Jamie in danger. He is hiding in the stables to avoid making his own pledge to Colum, knowing that if he fails to do so, his countrymen will kill him, but if he does swear allegiance, he’s next in line to be laird, putting his life in danger from the current heir, Dougal (Graham McTavish). It looks like a no-win scenario until a brilliant Jamie deftly sidesteps both scenarios, making everyone reasonably happy and keeping his life, at least for now.

Jamie and Claire seem well fit together. They both aren’t quite where they belong, and they both have enough wits and luck about them to keep them alive, though in a precarious position. This definitely plays into their bond, and should serve them well as they only fall more in love, as they surely must.
After failing to escape, Claire reluctantly goes along on a boar hunt, where she ends up watching Geordie (Bryan Larkin, Running in Traffic) die after being gored. I’m actually surprised more isn’t made for Claire’s outspoken distaste for the hunt itself. I assume this is because the others realize she has seen death caused by violence before, earning her a pass women unaccustomed to such an experience wouldn’t get. Claire’s life has given her the weight to make judgment in such matters. Thankfully, she doesn’t gloat when proven right.

Geordie isn’t the most important focus in his own death scene. Instead, OUTLANDER shows us Dougal and Claire holding him as he dies, united in purpose at last. Douglas gets more complex this week in multiple scenes, including a semi-touching moment during a game between him and Jamie. A failed drunken rape of Claire reinforces the view many viewers hold of him as a selfish leader whom the people would not be well served to have rule over them. But watching him Geordie, and then the regard he gives Claire after seeing her in action, tell a different story. Perhaps he’s just a man of his time, hardened, but not evil. I look forward to seeing where they go with him next.

Which brings us to the conclusion of “The Gathering,” in which Dougal asks Claire to accompany him as he travels around the land. Well, asks may be too mild a word, as she surely has no choice in the matter. This may afford her a better opportunity to get away, not being so closely guarded now that he trusts her at least marginally, but it also may keep her to her current fate more strongly, as she can’t seem to resist helping anyone that needs it, even delaying her flight to give Laoghaire (Nell Hudson) peace of mind, and she will definitely be encountering those who could use her help.

Something interesting I caught in “The Gathering” is a reference to The Wizard of Oz. This is intriguing because the previous episode also alludes to the story. Claire is very Dorothy-like, having been swept away from her home and regarded somewhat suspiciously by the locals because of her ‘magical’ skills. Is OUTLANDER taking a convenient parallel and exploiting it for modern audiences, or will they make long-term use of it, drawing more connections between Dorothy and Claire?

Though, one does wonder a bit how Claire is so familiar with the film, quoting it to Laoghaire, which came out during the war she just escaped, and wasn’t highly popular in its initial release. She doesn’t seem the type to indulge in such fantasies during her gritty reality.

“The Gathering” lacks many flashback scenes with Frank (Tobias Menzies) that have been so prevalent in previous weeks, but that’s a good thing. We know Claire’s history well enough now, and more appearances by her husband tend to just drag things down.

The other cool thing in OUTLANDER this week is the introduction of a rival for Mrs. Fitzgibbons (Annette Badland), Iona MacTavish, who is played by Diana Gabaldon, the author of the OUTLANDER books. She may not be an actress, but she is great in the role, and although only billed as a cameo, I find myself hoping she’ll be recurring. Producer Ron Moore also makes a cameo, but in a much smaller capacity.

“The Gathering” is probably my favorite episode of OUTLANDER thus far. It is fun and exciting, with a healthy dose of suspense and character development. It’s the first week the show really seems to know what it is, and now that the setup is established, begins to play with the players and their relationships. If the rest of the season is as good as this week, consider me firmly in the fan camp.

OUTLANDER airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET on Starz.