The Time Traveler’s Wife premieres Friday, May 13 on HBO Max. This is a non-spoiler review for all six episodes.
The second book-to-screen adaptation of the 2003 best-seller The Time Traveler’s Wife comes to us as a series from Doctor Who and Sherlock’s Steven Moffat. This naturally means the dialogue’s quickly paced and a bit winking, and an ample amount of charm will find its way in, even when it doesn’t quite fit. What can’t inherently change, though, is the story itself, which for 20 years has been equal parts romantic and icky. The Time Traveler’s Wife does ultimately work as a series, though accent and makeup choices, as well as a Christopher Nolan-type tendency to go over the “rules” ad nauseam, make for a bumpy ride – kind of like poor Henry DeTamble’s naked, collision-filled time -hopping itself.
The book’s story is set in America, though considering Moffat and the two UK-born leads – Theo James (the Divergent series) and Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones) – it didn’t have to be. There’s nothing about the tale that requires it to be set in a specific country. But instead, we get James and Leslie using American accents, which aren’t awful per se, but also don’t sound natural. In the end, any obstacle to these two being able to use as much of their charisma as possible – whether it’s wonky wigs or accents or making Henry look, like, 48 when he’s 32 – is a detriment because you have to be able to sell the shit out of this insane romance in order to smooth out as much of the awkwardness as possible. To their credit, James and Leslie do their best here in a somewhat overbearing story about two people whose time / fate has decided must meet, marry, and breed.
There are moments of drama that work well and moments of myth that are cute, but nothing can really stop this out-of-sync courtship from feeling aggressively bonkers, sometimes in problematic ways. A few lines here and there pay lip service to the fact that this is a cosmic grooming situation – that also plays into the antiquated idea of little girls having a “dream husband” out there, in the ether, who will just one day slide into the groom position at a large wedding – but it’s never deeply explored. Leslie’s Clare Abshire even says that because she met Henry when she was 6 and grew up into womanhood having 150 or so platonic dates with him as he popped back though time into forest behind her family’s estate, she’s formed her entire sexual identity around this man who continuously naked-cannonballs into her life.
Moffat did figure out, with mostly success, how to turn this fable into six episodes, but the longer you spend in this world the more absurd it becomes. It never normalizes. That being said, it’s the first two episodes that are the clunkiest to get through. Time travel, and all the twists and turns it can bring, is way more of a pop culture conversation now than it was even two decades ago, so Episodes 1 and 2 are filled with an excessive amount of exposure and reveals that are easy to spot ahead of time. Bottom line: Henry is somehow a man who, through no intention of his own and with no easily discernible trigger other than stress, instantly moves back in time (mostly within his own lifetime). He leaves his clothes behind and arrives places in the nude, always crash-landing on hard surfaces or angry people. The most interesting aspect here is that this type of time travel is not fun. In fact, it’s dangerous and emotionally damaging. His life is in jeopardy every time he goes back, and on top of that he’s often forced to revisit past personal calamities with no way of preventing them.
The first truly interesting part of the story involves Clare meeting Henry for the first time in a non-time-travel capacity – their first official adult introduction – and she knows everything and he knows nothing, because he’s only met her younger self as his older self. He’s 28 and a broken mess because of the toll his temporal hiccups have taken. Over these six episodes, the story weaves a fun web of these two running into each other at different stages of age and knowledge, taking turns at being privy to information and events because a different version of themselves either was told about it or already experienced it . It’s interesting and intricate and at times it’s enough to distract you from some of the more melodramatic moments that land with a thud.
This is mostly a two-person saga, although there are others around, at different points, to allow the story to breathe better. Desmin Borges (You’re the Worst) and Natasha Lopez fill in as Clare’s, and eventually Henry’s, friends, though we don’t get much more than the outlines of them as characters. Borges’ Gomez is supposedly Henry’s best friend but we only see them when they first meet and hate each other and then a decade later when Gomez has been a pal for years. The supporting actors who resonate a little better story-wise are Midnight Mass’ Kate Siegel and WandaVision’s Josh Stamberg as Henry’s parents, who because of a childhood tragedy, best represent Henry’s disdain for the past, which is a concept for him that doesn’t really exist.
The six episodes are nicely themed and contained, though the entirety of the series makes the whole situation feel more chaotic than hopeful – more treacherous than passionate. It’s a sweeping parable about someone fixed on a partner who’s unconventionally unavailable. Henry is, for much of the series, a prickly jackass, but he also gets to be unique in his sadness as he’s apparently the only one who’s cursed with this phenomenon. Clare, meanwhile, lives a life where her future dreams were basically hijacked at an elementary-school age. The two of them trade off in raging against the powers of fate, determined that they can make their own choices, and love who they choose to love, but the larger design at work has decided that they will always be because they always were. It just feels more like punishment than romantic release.
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