'Time After Time': TV Review

ABC/Bob D’Amico
Being TV's handsomest time-travel show isn't a mark of quality.

Kevin Williamson's ABC take on the H.G. Wells/Jack the Ripper time-travel favorite doesn't have enough to say to stand out.

The best line in ABC's new series adaptation of Time After Time comes from Josh Bowman's John Stevenson, a Victorian London doctor who also happens to be the feared killer Jack the Ripper. Having successfully filched H.G. Wells' (Freddie Stroma) time machine and taken it from 1893 to 2017, he looks at the new world around him.

"I belong here completely," he reflects. "In our time, I was a freak. Today, I'm an amateur."

Fans of Nicholas Meyer's 1979 film (and possibly Karl Alexander's book, though I'm unsure) will immediately recognize the line, which, like much of the movie, has been brought over for the first of two episodes airing when Time After Time premieres on Sunday night, March 5.

Backing up a hair, the premise of Time After Time is simple, whether you know the movie or just watched any of the other time-travel dramas that have launched in the last year. In addition to being an aspiring writer and utopian futurist, H.G. Wells has invented a time machine, though he's too tentative to try it out. Wells' friend John suffers from no such qualms, especially once police begin to suspect he's been killing prostitutes in alleyways. Fleeing authorities, Stevenson time-jumps to 2017, but because of a design quirk, the machine returns to 1893, leaving Wells easily able to head to the future to try to stop Jack the Ripper. Once there, Wells befriends a museum curator (Genesis Rodriguez as Jane), and John reflects on how well he fits into the brave new world that's much more Ripper-friendly than it is Wells' technologically refined fantasy.

It's not necessarily a good thing that the pilot dialogue that most stands out was transplanted from a source approaching its 40th birthday. It points to a pair of key questions that I can't answer after watching both hours of the Time After Time premiere, namely, "What is the actual series once the show burns through the premise of the movie?" and "What, exactly, do the storytellers want to say about 2017 in remaking this narrative?"

There was once a time when Williamson would have seemed like the perfect creator to answer that second question. His writing used to be introspective and self-reflexive, probably to a fault. In things like Scream and Dawson's Creek, he was practically obsessed with context, and everything had to be related to the contemporary moment, examined and underlined. There has been a shift in Williamson's writing, though, and Time After Time is his third-straight show in which the shriek of an imperiled damsel in distress and the glint of a steely knife at her throat are more interesting to him than the role of violence, particularly violence against women. Taken in isolation, I guess you can find what Williamson is doing in Time After Time to be "fun," but for three shows in a row, making violence against women fun is a bad lane to want to be stuck in, especially if you don't want to spur discussion about how women in 2017 might have problems even without the arrival of Jack the Ripper.

Time After Time is less utterly hollow than Williamson's CBS dud Stalker and slightly less literarily pretentious than Fox's The Following, but there remains an excess of uninterrogated slasher carnage. What it means for Jack the Ripper to find himself at home in 2017 is generally an afterthought, as is Wells' disappointment at facing the realities of a world that he'd hoped would have perfected itself. And don't expect Time After Time to have any more insight into Wells' writing than The Following had into Edgar Allan Poe.

Every once in a while, you get a glimpse at a worthwhile idea or two, like Stevenson's conflicted reaction to Googling "Jack the Ripper" and learning about his mixture of celebrity and anonymity, but mostly Williamson's interest in time travel manifests itself in glib one-liners like "What is an Oprah?" or Stevenson expressing confusion that an apartment would cost $8,000 a month, as if he'd already mastered currency exchange and inflation. There are smart and funny things that could be done with a 2017 Time After Time, but Williamson prefers to do the familiar stuff.

That then returns to my first question, which involves the potential for an ongoing Time After Time series. ABC only made two episodes available to critics, neither of which hints at a sustainable engine. A character played by Nicole Ari Parker is introduced in the pilot mostly to complicate the show's ongoing mythology. By the second episode, that complication has mostly just confused the characters onscreen and hampered Parker's struggles at making expositional downloads sound natural.

So if there's a reason to watch Time After Time, it isn't for smart handling of time travel or clever play with anachronisms or the ongoing mystery, but just for the evident good time the show's eruditely accented Ken-doll leads are having. Bowman, who often seemed so bored on ABC's Revenge, conveys a particular giddiness as Jack the Ripper, throwing in a couple of beats suggesting his hope that the monstrous killer might be redeemable. Bowman also benefits from being the guy who adapts quickly to the present and doesn't care about the mechanics of time travel, so he can be icy cool while Stroma effectively stutters and looks perplexed a lot. Stroma has a never-believable-for-a-second burgeoning romance with Rodriguez's Jane, a forced-onto-things subplot that struggles because Rodriguez overplays her character's comic confusion and then is less than adequate the more dramatic she needs to be — and she needs to be dramatic often because putting Jane in jeopardy is really what the show is about.

"To you, the Columbus of a new age," Stevenson says as he toasts Wells in the pilot, another lift from the movie, but a good analogy here. Columbus, you don't need me telling you this, didn't actually "discover" much of anything, making him a good precedent for a show that premieres in the shadow of its own original source material and also of NBC's Timeless, The CW's Frequency and even Fox's Making History, which debuts on the same night. We've already discovered plenty of time-travel shows this season, and instead of sci-fi inquisitiveness or paradoxical twistiness, Time After Time counters with handsome Brits from the past taking off their shirts. That's not pioneering enough for me to keep watching.

Cast: Freddie Stroma, Josh Bowman, Genesis Rodriguez, Nicole Ari Parker
Creator: Kevin Williamson

Airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.