tv review

Making History and Time After Time: Which Time-Travel Show Should I Watch?

Adam Pally, left, and Freddie Stroma. Photo: FOX, ABC

The TV time-travel market has gotten very crowded lately, so much so that two new decade-hopping series — Fox’s Making History and ABC’s Time After Time — will air on the same night, within a half-hour of each other, on two different broadcast networks. This is surely just a weird programming coincidence. Still, there is an irony in watching two shows about time dealing with such awkward timing.

Then again, if there is a place in the television landscape for Timeless, 11.22.63, Frequency, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, among others, perhaps there’s room for two more shows in the DeLorean, especially since, despite some wobbles, their initial episodes show some promise.

Making History and Time After Time, both of which premiere this Sunday, are quite different in form and sensibility. The former, created by Julius Sharpe, former writer and producer for Family Guy, is a half-hour sitcom that’s less interested in the details behind how time travel works than it is in mining the genre for jokes. Time After Time, developed for television by Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek, The Following) from the 1979 movie and novel of the same name, is a one-hour drama-thriller that has a sense of humor, but is driven mostly by its central conceit: H.G. Wells, author of such novels as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, has traveled from 1893 to the present to chase down serial killer Jack the Ripper.

As far apart as they are in storytelling style, both shows take pleasure in noting how Western culture has evolved — or, often, devolved — over the years. There are moments in each that highlight the societal differences between yesteryear and now on a variety of fronts, including where guns are concerned. “Does everyone in this era carry a firearm?” asks Wells (played by Freddie Stroma), not long after he lands in 2017. Meanwhile, in Making History, during a colonial-era standoff, British soldiers offer some solid suggestions about how to establish sensible gun control legislation on American soil. Olden times: They have so much to teach us.

Not that main character on Making History — Dan (Adam Pally), a university building-services manager who routinely rockets back to the 1700s to visit his girlfriend Deborah (Leighton Meester), who happens to be Paul Revere’s daughter — is especially interested in those lessons. He’d rather just teach his buddies from way back when about semi-modern pop culture. That’s why, in the first episode, he shows a bunch of people in Colonial Massachusetts how to do the Bartman and, later in the same episode, serenades Deborah with a song he wrote for her; weirdly, that song sounds exactly like Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.”

This is the comedic tone Making History tends to strike: light, silly, and steeped in references to movies, TV shows, and music from the ’80s and ’90s. If you’re tuning into this show — co-produced by, among others, Chris Miller and Phil Lord (Last Man on Earth, The Lego Movie) and Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) — expecting a lot of scientific mumbo jumbo that explains the space-time continuum, you will not find it. Dan, often joined on his journeys by his professor friend Chris (Yassir Lester), is able to shoot to 1775 and back simply by zipping into an oversize duffel bag and entering a date on a digital interface that vaguely resembles the one in Marty McFly’s DeLorean. (Yes, if you’re wondering, there are some blatant nods to the Back to the Future franchise in this series.) Exactly how this works and why is not fully explained; the show moves at such a brisk clip that viewers can’t linger too long on the lack of logic or basic exposition. Apparently, life comes at you fast when you’re nonsensically time traveling.

The first two episodes of Making History, in which Dan, Chris, and Deborah attempt to keep the Revolutionary War on track, almost play like a sober, more mainstream version of Drunk History. They’re slight but diverting enough, as are two others that put the group in 1919 Chicago and Al Capone’s social circle. Everyone in the cast, many of whom are veterans of TV, stand-up, and/or improv comedy, is game to embrace the absurdity, including Gossip Girl grad Meester, who especially looks like she’s having a blast in the Chicago-based episodes. Still, the show may struggle down the stretch to come up with plausible reasons for Dan & Co. to hopscotch between past and present; the only impetus for that visit to 1919 is so they can bet on the outcome of the World Series — did I mention there are Back to the Future references? — thereby helping Deborah raise money to buy an ice cream shop she’s randomly decided to purchase. As they used to say back in Colonial times, “Fie, good sir, this smacks of total nonsense.”

Like all good time-travel stories, Making History is smarter when it acknowledges the divide between the way things were than versus the way things are now, or, sometimes, the ways in which things haven’t progressed at all. “Wow, good to see Boston hasn’t changed,” says Chris, who is black, after a white barkeep in the 1700s calls him “slave.” The series deals even more frequently and pointedly with sexism, at least in the initial episodes. Deborah starts to discover her feminist side after her forays into other eras make her realize that women can actually have rights and the power to become heroes themselves. As appealing as Pally is, Making History might be a more clever, subversive show if it centered more fully on Deborah or Chris, and the ways in which America’s timeline could be altered if a woman or a black man intentionally messed with it.

Time After Time also has moments that acknowledge just how long the arc of the moral universe can stretch before bending toward justice. Shortly after Wells fires up the time machine he built in the late 1800s and lands in the middle of a Manhattan museum exhibit circa 2017, he tells an African-American security guard that he’s so glad to see that race relations have been solved and that everyone is equal. “Yeah,” the guard says, with a sarcasm that Wells isn’t savvy enough to grasp. “We’re all one big happy family now.”

Wells quickly realizes, though, that his vision of the future as a nonviolent utopia didn’t exactly work out. That idea informed the 1979 movie that inspired this series, too. But back then, when Wells was played by Malcolm McDowell, he was catapulted forward into the late 1970s. Now poor Wells finds himself in the most jarring hellscape imaginable: the middle of a present-day Times Square hotel bar, staring at a wall of TV screens projecting news stories about school shootings and ISIS. In the pilot, to be followed by a second hour-long episode when the show premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, the camera cuts from an image of Trump talking about nuclear weapons to Wells with a single tear running down his face. As a viewer, you don’t know whether to darkly laugh or weep.

The times may have gotten bleaker, but really, the point of Time After Time has not. It’s still a cat-and-mouse game in which Wells attempts to pursue Dr. John Stevenson (Josh Bowman, formerly of Revenge), a.k.a. Jack the Ripper, and drag him back to the past to pay for his many murders. Meanwhile, Stevenson keeps attempting to access Wells’s time-machine key, the only mechanism that enables travelers to visit eras other than the one from which they came. That’s a much sturdier foundation than Making History has, though even this framework makes me wonder whether there’s enough gas in the tank to justify a series for multiple seasons.

But I’m time-jumping ahead of myself. There’s certainly enough gas in the tank to make Time After Time an engaging show for right now, one that mixes in a variety of genre elements — horror, sci-fi, and even a little bit of rom-com, via the relationship that blossoms between Wells and museum curator Jane Walker (Genesis Rodriguez) — but does so with a self-assurance that makes it all work as part of a coherent whole.

The previews for Time After Time have focused on the Jack the Ripper element and have given off an air of, “What if Jack the Ripper came to the future … and he was super-hot?” Thankfully, that’s not the vibe of the series. The serial killer is, without question, the villain here. Bowman imbues him with a British sexiness that doesn’t turn him into a heartthrob necessarily, but does explain why so many New York women might succumb to his charms. There are moments, especially in the first few minutes of the pilot, where the series threatens to revel a bit too much in the victimization of women. This being a network show, though, things never get too gruesome. Stroma is also so winning that there’s never a question you’re rooting for Wells and not Jack.

“I belong here completely,” the Ripper tells Wells, echoing a line from the movie. “In our time, I’m a freak. Here, I’m an amateur.” But Time After Time is not an amateurish show; it’s actually quite polished. Making History is less so, but that’s also appropriate for its characters, who are both amateurs at this whole time-travel thing. (Seriously, Wells built an elaborate machine in the 1800s and in 2016, Dan’s got … a duffel bag?)

Both shows prove that times may change, and then change again if time hoppers screw them up. But those ever-ubiquitous TV shows about time travel will always have a few things in common.

Making History and Time After Time: Which Should I Watch?