The Time Traveler’s Wife review: Surprising and challenging TV
Mark Harrison | On 02, Jul 2022
This is a spoiler-lite review of HBO’s The Time Traveller’s Wife – scroll down for our spoiler-filled episode-by-episode observations.
“The past is what didn’t kill you, the future is what definitely will and in between is the only thing that matters.” It’s a line that would suit various protagonists from Steven Moffat’s scripts. In this case, he turns his brand of snappy yet sentimental philosophy to HBO’s new adaptation of The Time Traveller’s Wife, based on the bestselling novel by Audrey Niffenegger.
As much as it could sound like the Doctor or Sherlock or even Dracula, it’s Henry DeTamble (Theo James) who sees the urgency of living in the present, afflicted as he is with a disorder that makes him time-travel at random to different points in his life. Due to his condition, his wife, Claire Abshire (Rose Leslie), has known him since she was a child, and the series is all about the dissonance of falling in love the wrong way round, as the 20-something versions of the couple finally meet officially.
The uphill struggle for this is not that Moffat is unsuited to the material, but rather that he might be too obvious a fit. Niffenegger’s novel was hugely influential on his Doctor Who scripts, whether in the quirk of the Eleventh Doctor meeting young Amy Pond before travelling with her as an adult or the ongoing story of future archaeologist River Song’s relationship with the Time Lord unfolding in the wrong order.
It’s a bit like if George Lucas got to adapt Flash Gordon after making Star Wars, or Rian Johnson followed up Knives Out with a new version of Murder on the Orient Express. Plus, there was already a toned-down PG-13 film version of the book starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams – a big comfy jumper of a film, pitched more to the Nicholas Sparks audience than the grown-ups more attuned with the story’s ragged edges and explicit details.
Over these six episodes, though, it’s the Sherlock and Dracula Steven Moffat who’s come to play – a writer who appreciates the source material but, in adapting it, also contradicts it at every turn to keep the audience on their toes. These scripts are as quotable as we’ve come to expect from Moffat, with his unmistakable mix of sarcasm and sentimentality and, of course, structural shenanigans.
Moffat started his scriptwriting career in sitcoms and has never stopped honing that knack for setups and punchlines, although not always necessarily in that order. Indeed, he revels in this adaptation, building the frame of the story and gradually filling in the gaps. Few bestsellers lend themselves better to a “six-hour-movie” style and, tonally and structurally, each episode of this feels like a self-contained story.
Some devices are more successful than others – the use of talking heads recorded on home video from later in the central couple’s marriage, with our leads in old-age make-up feels like the biggest quantum leap backwards in the show’s tone and style, particularly as the season doesn’t get around to providing any context for the inserts. Likewise, the spritely genre-hopping lands itself in something stickier in Episode 3, which feels like a make-or-break point for audiences.
But from the evolving title sequence (styled after the iconic paperback cover) to the sumptuous direction by David Nutter, this is a handsome show about a chaotic, complicated and not-always-pretty relationship, which happens to capture all the messiness of the source material without simply restating it.
Anyone who’s seen the US pilot for Coupling will know that Moffat’s writing doesn’t always travel well across the Atlantic, but it’s in safe hands with James and Leslie, two Brits playing Americans and also playing the flirtiness and the lovesickness and the discombobulation just right in the present of the story. From Claire’s side, she’s emotionally articulate enough to recognise that she’s waiting around for a man but still holds her own, while Henry’s aversion to spoilers makes him a more flawed character but also a more conscientious one.
As to the past, much has been made of the potentially problematic scenes between adult Henry and younger Claire (played variously by Everleigh McDonell, Caitlin Shorey and Leslie herself) but the writing is bold enough and economical enough to clarify the awkwardness and even pun on it in the same bound.
The show’s warts-and-all effrontery may alienate some viewers, but it also largely carries itself through bits that could have come across as silly and overwrought – a problem that the feature-length film adaptation had the luxury of avoiding. Unusually, this also leaves things open for a potential second season, only hinting towards the denouement of the novel by the time the finale is done – HBO, however, has sadly not renewed it.
In its musings on time, love, and death (or past, present, and future, if you like) The Time Traveller’s Wife is expansively faithful to the book without either wallowing in fan service or prettying it up for newcomers. It’s as morally ambiguous as its central relationship ought to be and for better or worse, it’s new and challenging every episode. But for an adaptation of a 20-year-old novel that was adapted into a 10-year-old movie, it’s remarkable that every episode is a surprise, not to mention how it finds new resonance in a story whose tropes and complications have already been broadly covered by the same writer elsewhere.
Spoilers: Episode by episode
The talking-head bits aside, Moffat wrangles the meet-cute in his usual style, contrasting the flirty dynamic in the present with outrageous past conversations (that grooming joke!) and a grisly bit of foreshadowing at the episode’s end.
Immediately showing the range of the adaptation, this incredibly moving instalment revolves around Henry’s point of view on both his first date and his past traumas, including various startling asides with Kate Siegel as his mother Lucille and Brian Altemus as his younger self.
Moffat extrapolates an incident from the book into a story that’s at once more balanced in showing Claire’s perspective but also on sticky ground as it broaches rape-revenge territory. Leslie gives an incredible performance but the tropes bestowed upon Claire here remain problematic, no matter how they’re deployed.
On firmer ground, the Moff revisits both Coupling and Doctor Who modes in a multi-Henry episode that revolves around his first meeting with Claire’s friends Gomez and Charisse, and a later drop-in after many meetings, both at the same time.
In the second “getting to know you” comedy episode on the bounce, this one has Meet the Parents energy and gets to grips with Claire’s degrees of dissociative attraction – she paradoxically misses the older version of Henry when she’s young and feels the opposite way when she’s older.
Like Moffat’s first series of Doctor Who, we end at a wedding. This one is at once a screwball romance and a haunted house story set in the future. With the show’s own future uncertain at the time, it’s all the bolder for the show to suggest the endeavour is always worth it, even if all we end up with is an entertaining and challenging season of telly. Let’s hope Season 2 finds a way of happening.