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American Gods may have finally nailed the modern-fantasy formula on TV

AUSTIN, Texas—TV pilots ain't what they used to be, as the Netflix model takes much of the weight off a first episode's shoulders. Series can take their time revealing characters, unfolding plots, or even having much plot take place in a single episode.

Weirdly, the first hour-long episode of Starz' new American Gods series feels like a relic of that older era—in all of the best ways. This is TV built to stun, with equal parts momentum and cautious pauses, and it won't embarrass fans of its source material. The Neil Gaiman novel of the same name has no shortage of mystery, intrigue, and surprise in its first few dozen pages. Starz' take on the book manages to follow its every major plot thread to a satisfying degree, all while setting into motion a solid framework for how we should expect the modern-fantasy epic to unravel.

Vikings soaked in corn-syrup blood

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Need a meaty, complex time travel series? Start watching Outlander

Claire returns from her job as a nurse in World War II, only to time travel back to eighteenth century Scotland. (credit: Starz/Sony)

At first glance, Starz' series Outlander looks like breezy historical romance. Its protagonist, Claire Beauchamp, stands in a dramatic landscape wearing 18th century clothing, her hair blowing in a Scottish wind. The series’ leading man, Jamie Fraser, sports long curling red hair and a kilt that somehow manages to suggest both pragmatic durability and convenient access.

Those first impressions are not wrong, precisely. Most of Outlander is set in 18th-century Scotland (and France in the upcoming second season). Claire is increasingly interested in taking advantage of Jamie Fraser’s accommodating kilt. But Outlander isn't just a great, detailed, and persuasive historical romance. It's also the first hit series from Ron Moore since Battlestar Galactica.

Though it may seem like a departure, Moore has woven sci-fi into the fabric of the series, a time travel story whose setting in the 18th century Scottish highlands offers an intriguing alternate history twist. That initial impression of a historical romance is actually just one facet of a series that is, like the books it’s based on, a crazy and appealing genre mashup. Outlander somehow brings together time travel and alternate history with romance, psychological suspense, and political drama.

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