The Top Shows of 2015, No. 16: Starz’ “Outlander,” HBO’s “Game of Thrones”

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The fan base for Starz’ lush adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling Outlander novels is in terms of knowledgeable enthusiasm and supportive ferocity second only to that for HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” I have chosen to place them together in one position on this list because both projects, on the page and on film, are hugely popular adaptations of novel series located squarely in the fantasy genre, and yet both offer so much more.

“Thrones” plays out in an ever-expanding fantasy world created by author George R.R. Martin, with dozens of stories involving hundreds of characters all being inexorably drawn together in what promises to be the most epic confrontation ever produced on television. But who can say for sure? There are all kinds of questions in the wind, because the narrative during the next season of “Thrones” – the sixth – is going to move fully beyond the five novels in what Martin intends to be a seven-part series because he has yet to complete the final two books.

Will fervid fans of the franchise accept the television tale to come without the first-hand knowledge of the books to serve as a foundation? Will the HBO series spoil whatever drama is to come in the last two novels? I’ll bet it doesn’t matter to most viewers, since the majority have quite likely not read the books and care only about the television adaptation. But it’s an interesting position that all parties find themselves in.

For now, it seems that the only thing that really matters to fans of “Thrones” is whether or not Jon Snow is alive and actor Kit Harrington (pictured above) is going to return to the show. In many ways “Thrones” seems to defy audience loyalty by continuing to kill off popular characters – especially the “good guys” -- in the most violent of ways. But it’s working; the audience for “Thrones” was in its fifth season bigger and more vocal than ever, and the industry finally chose to honor it with an Emmy Award for Outstanding Dramatic Series (part of HBO’s unprecedented Emmy sweep earlier this year).

Where “Thrones” continues to widen the epic scope of its story, sometimes leaving some of us confused or feeling that certain characters aren’t as developed as we might like them to be, “Outlander” accomplishes the opposite, becoming ever more internal and intimate as its sweeping saga of time travel and forbidden loves continues to expand.

The second half of this sometimes punishing romantic drama delivered shocks and surprises for those of us who are wholly unfamiliar with the novels (but appreciate great television). It’s impossible to go into detail without revealing ruinous spoilers, but Catriona Balfe remained as quietly commanding and luminous as ever in her portrayal of Claire Randall, a married World War II nurse inexplicably thrust back in time to 1743 Scotland, and Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser, the warrior with whom she falls in love. (That’s the streamlined version; there is a good deal more to their story.) Heughan impressively handled some of the most demanding scenes any actor was asked to play in any television series this year. Their performances were as award-worthy as any other; the same is true of Tobias Menzies in the dual role of Claire’s “present day” husband Frank Randall and his evil 1743 double, Captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall. (Balfe and Heughan are pictured at top and above.)

It is no exaggeration to state that “Outlander” is as captivating and absorbing and sumptuously produced as any other high-end series in this Second Golden Age of Television – or that its upcoming second season has fans eager with frenzied anticipation.

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