With Time After Time, ABC and Kevin Williamson continue television’s current love affair with the idea of time travel, following in the recent footsteps of Syfy’s terrific 12 Monkeys and NBC’s well liked but daffy Timeless. It also premieres the same night as FOX’s time-travel comedy Making History with Adam Pally. On one hand, this confluence of similarly themed but wildly different takes on the paradoxical yet intriguing notion of traveling through time denotes just how easily the subgenre supports a number of interpretations, ranging from darkly serious to weird and gimmicky. But it also raises the question of just how many stories about people entering the time stream can TV sustain before people start looking elsewhere for their entertainment?
Time After Time is itself a story from the past. First a 1979 novel and then a movie of the same name starring Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, the story of H.G. Wells traveling from the late 19th century to present-day in search of his surgeon friend who is also the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper is certainly an original concept, making its reintroduction into the mainstream nearly 40 years later understandable from a commercial aspect. In this new iteration, UnReal and Game of Thrones actor Freddie Stroma plays the part of Wells, while Josh Bowman plays John Stevenson, also known as Jack the Ripper.
Throughout the first half of the two-hour premiere, Williamson is intent on recreating the circumstances of the book and movie, changing little of the Ripper’s timely flight from justice beyond his destination, which becomes the far more television-friendly burg of Manhattan than the film’s setting of San Francisco. There is, of course, also the fact that, in the film, Wells traveled to the then-present-day of 1979, which, while that would certainly make for an interesting take on the show – a time travel thriller/period drama – Time After Time doesn’t have such lofty ambitions. Instead, the series sets itself up to become a slightly serialized procedural with a romantic component and a larger story thread introduced in the pilot’s final moments.
With its attractive leads that also includes Génesis Rodríguez as Jane, a curator of the museum in which Wells’ time machine resides, as well as the glossy production values resulting in the characters enjoying well appointed New York City apartments – despite lamenting the employment opportunities afforded someone with an art history degree – the pilot reads like Castle with a time-travel twist. Wells is the adventurer author (or soon-to-be author) and Jane is his charming, more grounded companion and obvious love interest. The situation is such an easy and familiar set up for a television show it’s a wonder Time After Time hasn’t been translated into a weekly series several times before now.
For his part, Stroma brings a charming everyman quality to the role of Wells. There’s an ease with which he plays the man-out-of-time aspect of his character, and his willingness to be open to being amazed, astonished, and appalled at the world of 2017 goes a long way in making the character appealing enough to want to see where the story takes him and Jane. At the same time, though, his boyish naiveté with the present-day world can only go so far before it becomes a crutch or too reminiscent of Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane on Sleepy Hollow. Wells has quite a few exchanges in the pilot that hew so closely to Crane’s initial reaction to finding himself in the present-day one might think Time After Time was itself a partial remake of FOX’s series.
For their part, Jane and John are less engaging as characters, which might have to do with the fact that the show knowingly gets a lot of mileage out of Wells’ being a real person, capitalizing on his fame and penchant for creating stories he surreptitiously was a part of. While that works for the future author of the Time Machine, it actually works against Jack the Ripper (or John), as the infamous killer has assumed a position in pop culture that in some ways overshadows the gruesome reality of his crimes. Blurring the lines between realty and fiction on two fronts gives Time After Time its reason for being, but John is such a stock character – a handsome devil in a nice suit with an insatiable bloodlust – that he fails to live up to the enormity of what the Ripper has become in the nearly one hundred and thirty years since earning his dark moniker. In the pilot, John assimilates to the modern world quickly, claiming to have found his place in a society so seemingly obsessed with violence. But explaining his nature, giving him a random, banal identity, and assigning a handsome actor to play the part, only reduces the killer’s legend and trivializes the brutality of the murders he committed. The only way Time After Time could make this aspect of its narrative more pedestrian is if the whole thing were repositioned around a fictionalized John Grisham chasing Taylor Lautner as the Zodiac Killer.
To its credit, the pilot gets by largely on the chemistry between Stroma and Rodríguez. The two are both charming enough that the sometimes-clumsy efforts to move quickly past the hurdle of necessary exposition and into the larger plot at hand doesn’t completely undermine the believability of their burgeoning relationship. Like John, Jane is a little one-note but given that she is a creation of the story and is not forced to walk the line between public knowledge and authorial intent the character comes off a bit better than John/Jack.
By the end of the premiere, the series is poised to find better use for its central gimmick than to keep revisiting the Wells vs. Jack the Ripper concept. What that promises for the road ahead is as uncertain as it is unlikely to yield truly fascinating results. In all, though, Time After Time makes for an uninspired but mostly harmless addition to ABC’s Sunday night television lineup.
Time After Time continues next Sunday with ‘Out of Time’ @ 10pm on ABC.