'Frequency': TV Review

Frequency - Pilot-H 2016
Bettina Strauss/The CW
Father-daughter emotions may make this worth your time.

The CW's entry in the time-travel TV game features a strong lead in Peyton List, plus some awful old-age makeup.

The week of time-travel TV premieres that began on Monday with Timeless continues on Wednesday with The CW's Frequency, which represents in many ways the opposite side of the coin from NBC's contribution to the genre. Where Timeless viewed time travel on a macro level, with a team jaunting to any point in history hoping to protect either the United States or the world or all of history itself, Frequency goes micro, with two people and times connected in a single 20-year interval and hoping to make corrections mostly to a small family narrative. And where Timeless approached its incongruities and implausibilities with humor and occasional goofiness, Frequency aims for earnestness and emotion to smooth out leaps in logic. Frequency, like Timeless, is both watchable and highly flawed, but this paragraph should probably be enough already for most viewers to know which show, if either or both, is more likely to be on their wavelength.

Based on the 2000 Gregory Hoblit film, a sleeper hit known for its ability to make men cry without the enhancements of an underdog sports backdrop, Frequency has been reconceived for a CW audience by Jeremy Carver to now be the story of Raimy Sullivan (Peyton List), an NYPD detective still living in her childhood home and vaguely haunted by the legacy of her detective father (Riley Smith), who was killed as part of an undercover sting back in 1996. A lightning strike causes the old ham radio in the garage to somehow transmit between 2016 and 1996, allowing Raimy to spoil the World Series for her father, but also producing the possibility of butterfly effect-related misadventures if she tries to save her dad's life or get involved with a creepy, decades-spanning serial killer investigation. In trying to fix her past, will Raimy screw with her present? Spoiler: Yes, she will. That's how time travel works.

Adapting old time-travel movies for TV is a similar exercise. When you tinker with the formula that was successful in the past, unless you Gus Van Sant's Psycho it, you introduce new consequences, some beneficial and some detrimental. Carver's Frequency adaptation is full of variations from the film, which isn't necessarily a bad approach given that a fair percentage of The CW's ideal audience wasn't even born when Frequency came out, which may or may not actually be true, but surely ought to make you feel old.

The movie is fundamentally a male weepie about a repaired father-son relationship, Field of Dreams with a ham radio instead of a corn field, and changing the present-day character to a daughter impacts the story's basic chemistry. Based only on the pilot, it remains to be seen how Carver and the Frequency writers will play with these dynamics or if there's an awareness that the DNA becomes very different when you make this switch. I've got no objections to the approach provided it's calculated and considered and not just surgery performed to put Frequency firmly in The CW's wheelhouse. [That such CW favorites as The Flash and Supernatural are basically stories about fathers and sons is secondary.]

What making Raimy a young woman does is offer a starring vehicle intended to help this show's Peyton List usurp Disney Channel favorite Peyton List for Google supremacy. This List is best know as Jane Sterling from Mad Men or a secondary cast regular on a number of short-lived dramas, but she's earned this shot and her mixture of skepticism, strength and confused emotion is a big part of what will have me watching Frequency for additional episodes. So far, the consequences of futzing with time fall almost entirely on Raimy, and if you feel the amazement and horror that the show needs you to feel as her present begins to be changed around her, it's because of List. It's an odd performance because most of her best acting moments are opposite Smith's character, who can't share the screen with her, but I give List a lot of credit for acting opposite a ham radio, not a task actors are often given these days (though Scoot McNairy has done some of that this season on Halt and Catch Fire).

The magic ham radio in the movie connected 1999 to 1969, a 30-year gap that let the father and son bond over the Amazin' Mets, among other things. The pilot gives no indication of why the 1996 World Series would be of similar significance to this father and daughter, who remain Mets fans, and also doesn't quite put a finger on the pulse of why a ham radio enthusiast in 1969 might be different from a ham radio enthusiast in 1996, as the internet was beginning to change the way we all communicated. My instinct is that a different kind of person fiddled with ham radios in 1969 versus 1996, but maybe I'm wrong. Mostly, the shortened window is there so that The CW could wallow in '90s nostalgia — one hard cut to the past is driven simultaneously by "Wonderwall" on the soundtrack and Bill Clinton on a TV — and so that the show could justify having several actors play versions of themselves aged by only 20 years.

This proves to be a mistake, because as This Is Us proved in its recent second episode, aging makeup on TV has reached that point at which what artists think they can do hasn't matched what they actually can do. Mekhi Phifer, who plays a cop who works with Raimy and also partnered with her father, gets away with slight graying of the goatee and temples, but Devin Kelley as Raimy's mother is saddled with discolored hair, crow's feet, laugh lines and looks generally ridiculous as the 50-ish version of her character. Several other aged characters are stuck with absurdly bad facial hair and other slathered on effects that are an annoying distraction in the pilot and may become even worse in subsequent episodes with less time and money for care. With a gap of 30 or 40 years, Frequency might not have felt as confident attempting this misguided thing.

Even if bad makeup weren't making it really hard to take Kelley and Phifer seriously, the general depth for the supporting characters is consistently lacking in the pilot. List and Smith have the only fully developed roles and Smith, still better here than he was in an awful arc on Nashville, is bogged down in an undercover investigation that's only limited imagined. As Raimy's boyfriend, Daniel Bonjour has one weak scene justifying a premise that is best left to "Lightning striking things makes the magical" simplicity, but otherwise is forgettable. And while I welcomed that Lenny Jacobson is around as perhaps the only humorous outlet in the pilot, my notes contain at least three different incorrect guesses on what his character has to do with anything or any other character.

Timeless, with its practically endless roster of historical events to travel back to, has a long-term premise that's easy to latch onto, but my biggest question about Frequency after watching the pilot twice is what it's going to look like after 10 or 25 episodes. I would think there would be a limited amount of paradox to be mined from this single 20-year pivot and I don't know if I'm invested enough in the serial killer or undercover investigation for them to be ongoing for more than a few episodes, but I'm sure there are bigger mythological things in play and I can't predict if they'll be interesting. I do know that I like this opportunity for List as a TV star and the opening time-travel convolutions are treated to accentuate emotion and character relationships in a solid way. It has room to grow and room for improvement and I'm appreciative that even if time-travel shows are all the rage at the moment, the approaches are varied enough that even if they're all flawed, they're flawed in different ways that should hit (or flounder) with different audiences. And if neither Frequency or Timeless is right for you, just wait patiently for midseason when the next wave rolls in.

Cast: Peyton List, Mekhi Phifer, Riley Smith, Devin Kelley
Developed for TV by: Jeremy Carver
Premieres: Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (The CW)