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HBO’s ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’: TV Review
Rose Leslie and Theo James play a couple challenged by time travel in HBO's adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's novel.

HBO’s ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’: TV Review

Theo James and Rose Leslie in ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’Courtesy of Macall B. Polay/HBO

The Time Traveler’s Wife starts with a very big ask — one that’ll no doubt have some proportion of the viewing audience responding with a hearty no thank you, though also one that’ll already be familiar to fans of the Audrey Niffenegger book or the 2003 film that have come before it.

Namely, it needs you to be okay with the fact that large chunks of the series, but especially the first few episodes, revolve around the relationship between a little girl and an older man who secretly appears naked in the woods behind her house no fewer than 152 times over 14 years.

The Time Traveler's Wife

The Bottom LineMaybe it's time to break up with this story.

Airdate: 9 p.m. Sunday, May 15 (HBO)
Cast: Rose Leslie, Theo James, Desmin Borges, Natasha Lopez
Executive producers: Steven Moffat, David Nutter, Sue Vertue, Brian Minchin, Joseph E. Iberti

Granted, within the logic of the story, it makes some sense. The man, Henry (Theo James), is a reluctant time traveler with no control over when or where he ends up, or for how long. The girl, Clare (played by Everleigh McDonnell as a young child, Caitlin Shorey as a slightly older child and then Rose Leslie from high school onward), grows up to be his wife, making these chats — from his perspective, at least — a heightened version of the idle conversations we’ve all had with loved ones we’ve met later in life, about what they must have been like as kids.

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But even with that mitigating context, it’s not exactly comfortable to watch a 20-year-old Clare breathlessly explain to 28-year-old Henry when their timelines finally converge that her entire libido has been formed around him and “everything you, personally, have conditioned me to want.” And no, acknowledging the awkwardness with an offhanded “grooming” joke when Clare is 6 doesn’t make it not awkward.

It’s an awfully rocky start to a star-crossed romance we’re supposed to be rooting for, and while things do improve from there, hollow characters, an uncertain tone and, most damningly, a total lack of chemistry keep The Time Traveler’s Wife from ever quite rising to the level of swoon-worthy.

The latest telling of this story, from Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat, frames the saga with interview footage of an older Henry and an older Clare reflecting on the unique challenges of being, or being with, a time traveler. As befits a story about a man who can’t help slipping through time, the series jumps back and forth into both characters’ pasts as well as their futures, with captions helpfully detailing how old each version of them is at each point in time.

As time-travel logic goes, The Time Traveler’s Wife keeps things fairly tidy and contained. Nothing can ever be changed, because anything anyone decides to do has already been written into the timeline; think Arrival, not Avengers: Endgame. The approach lends Henry and Clare’s courtship the bittersweet gravity of fate — or at least it should. The trouble is that, having sealed Henry and Clare’s fates, The Time Traveler’s Wife struggles to come up with any other reason the two of them should be together.

They don’t really seem to enjoy each other’s company, or seem all that suited for one another. Henry, who has a girlfriend when he first encounters Clare, seems more resigned than elated to learn that the woman throwing shoes at him and calling him an asshole is the one he’s going to spend the rest of his life with. For her part, Clare spends most of their early relationship complaining that the late-20s Henry she’s dating now can’t measure up to the 30- and 40-something Henry she fell for as a girl, leading to jealousy not only between both parties but between other-aged versions of their own selves.

James is dashing and a little sardonic as Henry, whose lifelong experiences with time travel have left him with the prickly shell of a survivor, while Leslie throws herself wholeheartedly into Clare’s emotional highs and lows. But they’re done no favors by a narrative that never seems to have wondered who Clare, especially, is beyond a time traveler’s wife — nor by their inability to generate any real sparks between them, much less any brilliant enough to serve as a beacon through space and time.

It is possible, if you are squinting from a particularly generous mood, to see in Henry and Clare’s predicaments exaggerated versions of the ones faced by people in any committed relationship. There’s a germ of a relatable idea here about how any long-term romance involves falling for not only the person in front of us, but for all the people they have been or have the potential to become going forward. Or how the most meaningful relationships in our lives inevitably transform us, turning us into not only better versions of ourselves but into better friends, lovers and partners for the inpiduals we care about.

Outside of Henry and Clare’s romance, The Time Traveler’s Wife has some fun with the rules of Henry’s version of time travel. The fact that he shows up naked and disoriented whenever he travels lends itself to both sitcom-y hijinks and action-thriller-flavored excitement (as you might expect, Henry spends a lot of time getting beat up by people who don’t take kindly to some unclothed weirdo falling right on top of them). Flashes of time-traveling blood and other body parts suggest more dire predicaments to come, though this version of The Time Traveler’s Wife saves the biggest reveals for a future season.

But The Time Traveler’s Wife fails so direly to mine any romance from its central premise that it starts to build a case for the opposite. Perhaps there is, in the end, nothing all that romantic about learning to live with some dude you don’t even like that much, but can’t ever escape for reasons outside your control. Maybe the real romance would be two people doing what us non-time-traveler normies do every day: choosing someone to love, and choosing every day to continue loving them with no guarantee that any of it is written in the stars.

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