Yes, it’s called “Time After Time.” And yes, much of the two-hour premiere hinges on a MacGuffin time machine key — and yes, the protagonist is “Time Machine” author HG Wells (Freddie Stroma).
But compared to “Timeless,” “Legends of Tomorrow,” or even “Doctor Who,” the time machine here may well have been a one-and-done, Keurig situation: The entire Victorian preamble was mainly a way to get this set of characters to the same place at the same time, resulting in a procedural more along the lines of Ioan Gruffudd’s recent “Forever” or the romantic anachronisms of “Sleepy Hollow” — a strong, long-running trend you can also see crop up in all vampire soaps: “Moonlight,” “True Blood,” even “Angel” and “Vampire Diaries” offer this trope up pretty regularly, as a consequence of the immortality inherent to the genre.
As in the source material the two time travelers here — Wells and Jack “The Ripper” Stevenson (Joshua Bowman) — acclimate to 2017 in vastly different ways: Where Wells is so far constantly distracted by yelling into iPhones and playing with light switches, Stevenson seemingly gets there over the course of a single shopping trip for a new blade and designer stubble. The casting of these two men is a quick shortcut to deducing the good/evil breakdown here, but just to make sure we’re on board, Bowman has a lengthy scene in just a low-slung towel, while Stroma’s 2017 attire is modest enough to be noticeable.
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It’s easy to make a bad-boy character sexy to an audience, but generally a greater challenge to make a legitimate nice guy both interesting and attractive. Luckily, this show has both Bowman’s brooding good looks (and, finally, his native English accent) alongside Stroma’s unleashed puppy dog earnestness.
And it’s this inherent, radiating goodness with which the show maintains its improbably lighthearted tone. Considering the gruesome brutality of the real Ripper murders — hinted at, but not described in detail, on the show — this is no small feat. The real Ripper, of course famously never caught, targeted not just sex workers but older women, predicting (somewhat accurately) that their deaths would not attract as much attention as those richer or prettier. When Stevenson is questioned here as to why he focused on this particular demographic, he is offended that history didn’t record his other murders of “vagrants” of all ages and genders. Indeed, his affront at Wells’s continued fame and his own historical anonymity is perhaps part of what drives him to bring his murderous sensibility to 2017.
This is deep, Freudian territory to mine — which is why Stroma’s relentless goodness is so crucial. Where Stevenson embodies the trope of buttoned-up businessman with a secret dark side, Wells provides an unsullied portrayal of the sort of Victorian manhood the Queen herself would have admired. It is this utter lack of guile that allows him to get away with delightfully preposterous lines like, “[…Of] course, things have changed a great deal since 1893. I can no longer make social or cultural assumptions. My apologies.”
We’re reminded throughout of that first, amazing season of “Sleepy Hollow,” in which the relationship between Ichabod and Abby (Tom Mison & Nicole Beharie) was everything simply because of their chemistry — which could only, of course, really happen in 2017. In order to prevent your highly competent, attractive white male lead from dominating every storyline, conversation, and obstacle, the “fish out of water” scenario offers not just a solution but a valediction:
We can look back into the past for images and personalities and parts of masculinity that we want to preserve, while burning off all the resentment, entitlement and rage implied by modernity. Were men in the past wholly nontoxic? Of course not — nobody is, or ever has been — but it’s a lot easier to form a working and respectful connection between your leads when the typical hero doesn’t know how literally anything works, and has no compelling reason to be ashamed or enraged (or in denial) about it.
Here, that’s wisely presented as usual — Wells is no immortal vampire, he’s fresh and new like Ichabod — and improved upon greatly by the additional dynamic represented by the Ripper: The eternal selfish id, destructive and cruel, that arises from the same primordial masculinity that Wells makes shine. It’s the perfect 2017 show, putting these energies into intimate confrontation: Just as the selves and aspects of us all that they represent, they are eternally bonded.
In real life, you can’t have a Harry without a Voldemort, because either one of them is only half the story. To find love for yourself, as for any and all of the men in your life, it’s necessary to see these conflicting forces for what they are, rather than ignoring one or the other of them altogether. In real life, it’s not as simple as tone policing, punching Nazis or writing thinkpieces about thinkpieces — it’s about the man in front of you, and the forces all around us — and how the burdens this places on all us, for good or ill, whether fair or not, affect our movement forward.
In perhaps a slight diversion from the real Wells’s documented belief in what the 1979 film describes as “free love,” this show’s Wells has a stated and vested interest in finding his soulmate. This is — again, so importantly — played entirely straightforwardly by Stroma: His Wells is no chivalrous, m’lady “nice guy” expecting sex and romance by providing a woman with the basic motions of friendship; he is a gentleman, the same way that “Game of Thrones”‘s Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) is a knight: In the absolute most sincere manner.
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So when he encounters Jane (Genesis Rodriguez, always welcome) he is not smitten entirely because she’s the first 21st century woman he’s met, but because of who she is. After quickly course-correcting his initial assumption that women don’t serve in positions of power (Jane is Assistant Curator at the museum housing his time machine), we see how he falls for both the nerdy woman she is and for the 2017 sensibility she represents. In another of his extremely winning moments, Wells is offended on her behalf for the (relatively tame, considering) insult she received from an online “suitor.”
The book and film end at more or less the same point as this two-hour premiere: Jane having been rescued from Stevenson, Wells’s mission is finished. To turn this into a show, Wells here destroys the machine, and Stevenson is able to escape. There are also a number of fascinating new subplots added, notably the inclusion of the new “richer than Oprah” character Vanessa (Nicole Ari Parker), who just happens to be Wells’s great-granddaughter, whom he will, or has, visited in the past — while the eleventh-hour addition of William Popp as the as-yet-unnamed man compiling a murder board of Wells and Stevenson’s 2017 movements adds another level of intrigue.
With these characters now all basically stranded together in 2017 — and with Stevenson’s vow to kill a person every day until he gets that key — the show morphs from its time-travel origins to something entirely its own: A drama of dueling sensibilities and masculinities that couldn’t be more timely.
“Time After Time” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT, on ABC.
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