There’s a certain sense of predestination to the idea of Steven Moffat showrunning a TV version of The Time Traveler’s Wife. Moffat, after all, came to his post-Coupling career resurgence via a tenure on Doctor Who—most notably his celebrated 2006 episode “The Girl In The Fireplace,” an hour of sci-fi that could charitably be described as “a loving homage” to the plot and concept of Audrey Niffenegger’s best-selling novel. Time Traveler’s is, in any case, catnip for many of Moffat’s writing quirks, offering as it does a blend of romantic angst, complex time travel rules, and a strange mix of bloody seriousness and rom-com charm.
The weaknesses of HBO’s The Time Traveler’s Wife—which follows a 2009 film that covers most of this same material, starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana—are, then, the weaknesses that have dogged Moffat throughout his career: tonal inconsistencies that sometimes render glib what should be harrowing; a complicated story structure that occasionally obscures character, rather than reveal it; and, especially, the inescapable sense that the lines coming from its characters’ mouths are the result, not of human emotion, but of an insufficiently invisible screenwriter attempting to simulate it.
Where the show succeeds—which it does, slightly more often than not, and with more confidence as its six-episode run proceeds—is in drilling in to all the stranger emotional consequences of Niffenegger’s 2003 novel. It is, for example, to the credit of both Moffat and stars Rose Leslie and Theo James that the series manages to successfully sell its central love triangle, eventually revealed to be between Leslie, James, and…well, James again.
Said romantic geometry will make more sense for those familiar with Niffenegger’s premise, presented with less blunt cruelty here than in the original book: Henry DeTamble (James) is the titular wife’s husband, suffering from a never-explained malady that sends him bouncing, naked, through time in random directions and random intervals before eventually being returned to his “present” day. Unable to change the past, but frequently trapped within it, Henry’s life has been shaped by these backwards-and-forwards jaunts, which have forced him to become self-sufficient (in multiple senses of the word). What little stability he has is then subsequently smashed to pieces again when, at age 28, he encounters Claire (Leslie), a 20-year-old woman who informs him that he’s been visiting her, as a sort of frequently nude non-imaginary imaginary friend, since she was 6 years old.
Moffat’s scripts (filmed in straightforward fashion by Game Of Thrones regular David Nutter) are at their best when they steer into the emotional discomfort inherent in this temporally de-synched relationship and the weird power imbalances hiding beneath its initial fairy-tale presentation. (Watch, for instance, James flinch at an early mention of the word “grooming”; despite Herculean efforts, the show never quite manages to dispel the squick of the young Claire’s growing, and eventually reciprocated, attraction to her mysterious friend.) Once the two finally connect in something approaching real time—i.e., with just a “regular” eight-year age gap, instead of the much weirder one they were operating in before—Claire finds herself consistently disappointed that Henry isn’t the older, wiser man of her fantasies, a tension only exacerbated because said “George Clooney” version of her beau keeps popping by for a time-shifted visit.
Surprisingly episodic, each installment of Time Traveler’s tackles different parts of Claire and Henry’s relationship, and the best ones poke hard into those emotional insecurities. Of special note is the fourth episode, which re-casts the whole premise as a sort of chronologically complicated bedroom farce, complete with lots of nosy friends popping open doors that some version or another of Henry has to scramble to hide behind. Moffat clearly wants to make more than just a tragedy with this adaptation of a tragic novel, and he and his stars occasionally get enough runway to make it work.
Of those leads, Leslie shines brighter, keeping Claire an active participant in a story that sometimes feels specifically designed to sideline her. (The title might be The Time Traveler’s Wife, but Moffat can’t resist keeping the camera on the character doing all that interesting falling through time.) More importantly, she sells Claire’s steady turn from fascination to frustration to love, and is the only reason the show’s tonally-off decision to include a sexual assault plot line halfway through its run even begins to sort of work.
James, on the other hand, does a serviceable job differentiating each of the Henrys we’re forced to keep track of, but rarely finds a way to make each version of the character much more than haircut-deep. He gets the heavy lifting on many of the show’s more “profound” meditations on memory and grief, but always comes off as an actor more comfortable working with the more comedic side of Moffat’s dramedy split.
(This is also probably as good a place as any to dig into the second strangest thing about the show: The total Calvinball that it plays with its characters’ ages and accompanying makeup. James, who has the benefit of getting a Plot-Relevant Haircut distinguishing his older selves, lands at least sort of in the ballpark of Henry aged 28-41, before switching to “high school thespian playing a grampa” mode for Henry, age 42. But the show’s repeated insistence that Claire is 20 for most of its run only gets more absurd once we’re asked to accept that Leslie, who’s currently 35, is also playing her at 16 and 18. Leslie does fine work in those scenes, and some grace has to be granted for the trickiness of the subject matter. But the show’s repeated insistence on telling us the character’s ages with identifying chyrons—an element adapted from the source material—only makes the whole thing more distracting.)
The strangest thing about The Time Traveler’s Wife, meanwhile, is the sense that Moffat has pulled a punch somewhere. Yes, there are plenty of reminders that love only ever ends in one of two ways; yes, we get some dark hints about why Henry never encounters a version of himself older than the age of 42. But the Sherlock creator has deliberately omitted any kind of dark mystery from his new series, instead substituting in more thoughtful ideas on love and loss, and occasional moments of joy. (This includes, but is not limited to, a shock reveal of teenage Henry’s creative applications of his powers for self-stimulation, and a winning turn by Desmin Borges as a sort of time-travel-adjacent spin on Edgar from You’re The Worst.)
Sometimes these efforts are awkward. Sometimes these efforts are outright corny. But occasionally—and especially when Moffat and Nutter are willing to take their hands off the throttle and let the show live in the weird emotional intricacies of the relationship it’s supposed to be about—James and especially Leslie manage to make you understand why Henry and Claire’s love is so compelling. It’s just a shame that The Time Traveler’s Wife sometimes feels, like its hero, as if it’s being pulled in a hundred different directions at once.
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