January 20, 2017

What's with All these Time Travel Shows?

Sometimes, one hit television show will set off a series of copycats (the way that the 1960s vibe of Mad Men was co-opted rather unsuccessfully by shows like Pan Am and The Playboy Club.) Other times, for whatever reason, multiple creators/showrunners seem to simultaneously have the same idea.  It happened in 2005, when all three broadcast networks debuted shows centered around unidentified water-based monsters, all with forgettable one-word titles (Surface, Invasion, and Threshold).  Right now, The Crown is on everyone's Netflix binge list. Meanwhile, for those who want to hearken a little further back in British history, PBS premiered Victoria this past weekend on Masterpiece. 

The phenomenon is also currently happening with time travel - across the networks and on cable. Two such shows premiered this past fall - Frequency on the CW and Timeless on NBC. I watched the pilot episode of each, but neither made it to my weekly watch list. Here's why not:

Timeless - NBC

Timeless was up first on NBC. The episode was a composite of potential good ideas, but felt more like a first draft than a polished pilot. A band of heroes that we're supposed to believe are "unlikely" (though they seem pretty textbook to me) are tasked with traveling through time to save the past as we know it from a nefarious villain with unclear intentions.

The first seven minutes offered the audience the start of three plot lines and no discernible foundation. Failing to establish their credibility, the show gave us no reason to trust the characters. The editing was odd, and the show leaned the action sequences to hold together a flimsy and incoherent plot.

And speaking of incoherent, Timeless does little to address the philosophy of time travel to which it holds. Everyone seems to gloss over the massive shock that the existence of time travel ought to be. Usually at the prospect of time travel, people are incredulous. We're offered flimsy lines of protest: "Why would you be stupid enough to invent something so dangerous?" Damn good question. On the one hand, the show seems to hold to the "No Do-overs" rule. Yet, the whole plot is based on the proposition that the past can be altered and that it's the job of this band of heroes to protect the historic timeline as we know it.

On the whole, the writing was simplistic, with lines like, "Oh, the humanity!" "Make your own future" Lucy's sister tells her. Ugh. To which I reply - "Oh, the cliches!"

The highlight of this episode for me was Malcolm Barrett - glad to see him again after his run in the short-lived Better Off Ted. His lines like, "The future is not on your side - boy!" were brilliantly delivered.

I was not at all a fan of the show's use of "Wish You Were Here" at the conclusion of the episode. It was a weird cover, and if you're going to use a song by Pink Floyd, why not... "Time?"

Timeless is about the big picture - significant historic events. Frequency deals with a much smaller world with more personal consequences. And chose better music for its soundtrack.

Frequency - The CW

Frequency won major points as soon as they selected Wonderwall as the song that would indicate we were "back in time." (Side note: "Wonderwall" came out in 1995?!) The show is a remake (I gather) of the movie of the same name. I haven't seen the film, so it was all new to me. Here's the gist: New York cop discovers that she can communicate across time with her long-dead father through his ham radio.

I was pleasantly surprised by Peyton List, whom I'd only seen before as Jane in Mad Men, and Raimy is quite a change of pace from the one-time Mrs. Sterling. (Tough and Sincere instead of Fragile and Manipulative.)

Raimy really plays it fast and loose with the standard rules of time travel - i.e., Don't Tell Someone the Day They Will Die. The show sometimes seems to subscribe to the "The universe corrects itself" theory. In other ways, changing the future seems to be possible.

I'm not confident Frequency will maintain a consistent mythology or rules of the time travel, or that the show has an endgame in mind. But I sure like its premise. If Frequency manages to get a second season (which it may - this is The CW after all), I might just make time to catch up before that fall premiere.

Time After Time - ABC

ABC will be the third of the broadcast networks to the time travel TV show game this season, with Freddie Stroma as a time traveling H.G. Wells.

So there you have it. Three new shows each with a new angle on an well-worn concept. The first was set up to be a Time-Traveling Action/Adventure, the second to be a Time-Traveling Police Procedural. Yet to air Time After Time is poised to be a Time-Traveling Action/Adventure Police Procedural...Historical Romance? Still, I doubt that magic combination will save it. (Although its premiere slot next to Once Upon A Time might.) It's my prediction that these three shows will go the way of SurfaceInvasion, and Threshold - one season, and less than wonderful.