One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
I’m not totally against ridiculous TV show premises. Last year, Timeless proved that a non-original idea can merge with enthusiastic storytelling to form a fun, if formulaic, romp. Westworld, lest we all forget, is essentially an origin story about killer robot cowboys and cowgirls. I dug both of those shows, but they also share one downfall in my book: their initially intriguing opening hours faced diminishing returns in the “why do I care anymore” department. They lacked longevity.
Time After Time is as ridiculous as they come, in both good ways and bad, but it already feels like it’s encroaching into the land of viewer apathy by the time the totally toothless pilot-ending cliffhanger lands with a thud. Scream and The Following creator Kevin Williamson adapts the story from a book and film of the same name – in which the real H.G. Wells chases his real BFF Jack the Ripper to the present day via Wells’ real Time Machine – but it feels like he’s working with parental controls on. Not everything needs to have blood and guts, but Time After Time‘s central conflict is discredited by a woeful lack of tension, threat, and drama.
Instead, the show leans on quirk. Opening in 1893, we meet a charming surgeon named John (Josh Bowman) who moonlights as a dastardly, maniacal serial killer – Jack The Ripper – that sometimes forgets to remove damning evidence of a murder in his surgeon’s bag before going to a party. Thankfully, the thrower of the get-together in question is his buddy H.G. Wells (Freddie Stroma), who just so happens to have constructed an actual time machine, the perfect getaway for John when Scotland Yard comes calling.
Distraught that his creation could potentially leave an entire era vulnerable to John’s murderous hand, Wells hops in the Time Machine after him in order to save the day (the Machine bounces back to its point of origin after it’s used… I think, the sci-fi mumbo jumbo is laid on quick and thick in the nutty opening minutes). It’s clear from the get-go that Time After Time is embracing its cheesiness — the party scene is chock full of dramatic irony and references to as-yet-unwritten Wells works, all spouted by dapper, unbelieving colleagues of Wells. The show is so eager to just get on with the time travel already that it loses a bit of oomph and awe when it transitions to 2017, but I’d prefer zippiness over sluggishness any day.
Still, Time After Time falls far short in too many areas to fully be able to go along with it for very long. The central cat-and-mouse premise is laid so plainly and easily in front of you it’s nearly impossible to care about the lengths Wells claims he will go to in order to stop John. There are a few (very few) interesting metaphors, where Wells’ idealist, wide-eyed optimism is an antiquated notion disassociated with John’s murderous tendencies and appetite for cruelty and chaos – beliefs, Time After Time hints with a satisfied wink, that are very in vogue today. “In our time I was a freak,” John spits at Wells in a Times Square bar with apocalyptic newscasts running in the background. “Today, I’m an amateur.”
That scathing scene is the pilot’s best, filling some much-needed character into the somewhat empty conflict between the two men. Unfortunately, it’s over much too soon and the show doesn’t know what to do with its fleeting, intelligent undercurrents besides present a few flashes of news footage of ISIS and Trump, and make a black security guard sarcastically agree with Wells’ enthusiasm that racism has been eradicated in the years since 1893. What starts out ridiculous enough to be interesting becomes boilerplate to a fault – Wells is the dweebish hero, John the handsome rogue, museum curator Jane (Génesis Rodríguez) the clever sidekick. All are good but their goodness doesn’t stack or accumulate, it just dissipates behind Time After Time‘s failure to ignite.
A bright spot in the pilot is the chemistry and dialogue between Stroma and Rodríguez, at least assuaging some worries that a forced romance element will perhaps not be as frustrating as other parts of the show. Rodríguez is the done-to-death nonbeliever-turned-believer but she navigates that super quick pilot arc with finesse, managing to make Jane feel like an actual person instead of a glorified Siri to Wells’ confused pedestrian looking for turn-by-turn directions to the nearest sleeping establishment that might be housing a serial murderer. Stroma could be charming in his sleep, so the role of the constantly astonished time traveler is right in his wheelhouse. He excels in the white hat role where Bowman somewhat stumbles in the black hat one.
The Revenge actor is undeniably imposing and handsome (it’s pointed out to you at least three times if you happen to miss it), but he lacks menace. We get to see him kill once on his home turf, but it’s part of that mad opening dash to the Time Machine so none of the horror sticks. Later in 2017, John mostly spends his time coercing nice concierges into accepting cash over credit and going on a posh shopping spree on Fifth Avenue (his dad’s pocket watch is worth $15K 150 years later, score!) His few modern kills are off screen and although some time travel shenanigans throw one or two interesting wrenches into his master plan, they don’t add to any growing sense of urgency.
And that’s maybe the brunt of Time After Time‘s problems boiled down: it lacks urgency. One episode doesn’t represent an entire series, but as far as hooks go this one likes bite, and a winsome cast and pleasantly silly premise can’t make up for its shortcomings. Late in the episode, when Wells is asked what it’s like to be here in the modern world, with all of our whirlwind advances in technology and tendency to rely on hate as a default instead of understanding, the time traveling author is honest: “I’m dazzled, astonished, and also profoundly disappointed.” Time After Time never reaches the heights of astonishment to earn such a comparative criticism, but the show’s complete lack of engaging tension almost ensures it will have a relatively short and largely disappointing lifespan.
The cast is mostly endearing and the premise infuses everything with a quirky charm, but for a serial killer cat-and-mouse show Time After Time is seriously lacking in the tension department.