Voice over is a filmmaking technique where a character’s voice is heard over the action on screen. While it is extremely common in some film genres (like noir or some noir television like Veronica Mars (2004-2007), for example), most screenwriters are taught to “show not tell” and capitalize on the talent of the actors and the nuances of the visuals and score to convey and emotion or narrative point to the audience. Voice over works best when the emotion or action is difficult or hard to understand. Think of being in the mind of a serial killer like on Dexter (2006-2013) or when it is used ironically or as the comedy itself like on Arrested Development (2003-).
The use of voice over has been one of the nagging criticisms (like in this early review from Indiewire ) of Outlander from the beginning of the first season. Claire, the series’ time traveling heroine, can often be heard explaining the action on the screen. The problem is that these explanations are not particularly insightful or helpful. More often than not, they are simply descriptions of exactly what is happening on screen.
For example, in Episode 102: Castle Leoch, Claire walks out onto the allure atop the castle’s walls. As she steps outside, there is voice over from her about how landing in 1740s Scotland is akin to arriving in an alien world. When she sees Dougal MacKenzie playing with young Hamish in the courtyard she says, “Then you begin to wonder if maybe life on this alien world is not so different after all.” The problem with all of this is that it is obvious to the viewer from the action on screen. If, and that’s a big if, the first part of voice over in this scene, when Claire was simply looking out across the whole landscape, was necessary to highlight Claire’s state of mind or her familiarity with pre-Rising Scotland, the explanation of how she is feeling when she sees Dougal and Hamish—the realization that people are more alike than different—is completely unnecessary. Caitriona Balfe conveys that same emotion with a look. The voice over narration is clutter in an otherwise simple and elegant scene.
The fact that Outlander is an adaptation of a series of novels is one possible explanation for the proliferation of voice over. A novel, by the essential nature of the form, is able to transition smoothly from interior to exterior. Much of the original source material is written in Claire’s point of view. Translating her interior monologues to the visual medium of television is important to remain faithful to the books, so perhaps the writers and producers were simply struggling in the beginning to find the right balance for the show. The voice over narration does diminish, but not vanish entirely, as the first season develops.