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Television John Doyle: What do women want? More Outlander, big time

We are at the peak of mid-season madness. Good new shows are airing – American Crime, Last Man on Earth and Empire on the networks. On cable and Netflix, House of Cards, Justified and The Americans have returned. Anticipation is high for the final batch of Mad Men episodes starting April 5 and the return of Game of Thrones on April 12.

But the seething anticipation among many millions of women viewers is about something else. It's about the return of Outlander. It comes back in the United States on Starz on April 4 and in Canada on Showcase on April 5. There is a term for what is happening now. It's "Droughtlander." Even Entertainment Tonight is talking about Droughtlander.

Outlander, based on the books by Diana Gabaldon, began airing in the U.S. last summer on Starz, the feisty premium cable channel. Soon, across various platforms, Outlander was pulling in five million viewers. Not 100-per-cent female, but the ardent interest of women was striking.

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Starz chief executive officer Chris Albrecht, who used to run HBO, had declared, "There's a lack of female-skewing programs in the premium space." And Outlander was the answer. It's about a strong, self-aware, self-possessed female protagonist, former army nurse Claire Randall (Irish actress Caitriona Balfe), who, in 1945, is mysteriously transported back to the 1700s and becomes entangled with a Scottish warrior, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). In 1945 she had a husband with whom she was just establishing a loving relationship after being separated through the Second World War. She is, then, caught between two worlds, two men. Sounds like a wishy-washy romance, perhaps. But Outlander is unquestionably about one tough woman, and the story is always told from her perspective. In one interview, Gabaldon was asked about Claire's formidable strength, and said, "I don't like stupid women."

The series is a superb saga to get lost in. (You can find the first season on shomi.) It's a mesmerizing, compelling journey into the heart of Scotland's history and into a strong woman's perspective on love and sex. This is no jejune romance. It's about a powerful spirit, Claire's, evoked with sensitivity and nuance. Balfe is brilliant in it.

The other day I took part in a phone conference with Balfe, along with a small international group of journalists, most from South American countries. It was a slightly surreal experience. The intensity of interest is real. And for those suffering from Droughtlander, I can reveal a few key points.

Asked what she likes about Claire, Balfe said, "She is passionate, intelligent, fearless. She has gumption. She's almost like a wild horse in this world."

When asked, "Is it possible to love two men?" Balfe hesitated, laughed ruefully and answered with this: "That's a tricky question. It's possible to be torn. The love Claire had for Frank was unquestioned until she met Jamie. There are times when a person is torn."

The matter of the sex scenes in Outlander came up. The series is now adored for the naturalness and air of authenticity of those scenes. "Obviously it's a relief that the reaction is positive," Balfe said. "Those are not easy scenes to do. No one involved was interested in gratuitous sex scenes. We have an emotionally intelligent man in charge, Ron Moore [producer and showrunner] and it's a relief that people want this sort of treatment of sex scenes."

On the matter of Claire's relationship with Jamie: "There is a honeymoon phase, a dreamlike phase. Now they have to bond with each other again. Jamie has had to rescue her, but that is turned on its head. These are two people working to forge a real union."

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On comparisons between Game of Thrones and Outlander: "Game of Thrones opened the door for us. A successful show allows another one in the door. But Game of Thrones is a fantasy. Our drama has real historical events mixed in with fiction. And we have a central love story at the heart of things."

Given that Outlander is sparked by a mystical event in which Claire is transported to the 18th century, Balfe was asked, "Ever had a mystical event in your life?" She hesitated, then said, "Well, what do I share here … ?" And then she told the story of working in Japan a few years ago. "I think I met a ghost. People like to ridicule that, but I think it happened. There were noises in this house. I would come home and find electrical things were turned on. In bed one night I felt a presence in the room. I felt something stroking my head. The next day I packed my bags, and never stayed there again."

In the first episode of Outlander, Claire says, "When confronted with the impossible, the rational mind will grope for the logical." Ghosts, mysticism be damned – it's logical that viewers crave Outlander. There's nothing else like it.

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