Wednesday, July 6, 2022

What Do Critics Want?: notes on American Rust, The Offer and The Time Traveler’s Wife

HBO canceled The Time Traveler’s Wife last week. There goes another show I quite enjoyed. But hell, I’m used to it; at 63, I practically expect networks to discard the series I’m most fond of. What I don’t expect is that those same series will be so thoroughly trashed by critics.

American Rust, The Offer and The Time Traveler’s Wife currently hold scores of 48, 48 and 45, respectively, at Metacritic. Metacritic gathers reviews from across the globe, then assigns each of them a number between 0 and 100, as if the critics themselves had graded the shows. Several of the reviews for these series were so bad that Metacritic awarded them a 0. (I’ve never seen that before.)

I loved all three. American Rust was the best drama I saw in 2021. I won’t make that claim in 2022 for The Offer or The Time Traveler’s Wife, but I will sing their praises below. I don’t expect to agree with the major critics all the time, but I’ve rarely seen my opinions diverge so dramatically from critical consensus. I almost didn’t watch all three, because of the first batch of reviews — and what a mistake that would’ve been. I’m not here to critique the critics, but I am here to make the case for all three series, and perhaps in doing so, deduce what made them so unappealing to reviewers. So let’s start with American Rust, or as it’s been described:

“Hopelessly boring.” — The Hollywood Reporter

“A dry, dreary, humorless series.” — ABC News

“So relentlessly downbeat, so lacking in urgency, so drained of possibility, it’s hard to care about anything or anyone.” — The Boston Globe

“Aimless adversity porn.” — Salon

Wow, the critics savaged this one. Mare of Easttown had come along a few months earlier and established itself as a critical darling — and then American Rust showed up with a whiff of its setting and premise (a whiff, mind you), and reviewers seemed duty-bound to drag it through the mud. They had anointed Mare of Easttown: all pretenders to the throne must be beaten back — and brutally. The pacing was too slow, they insisted; the characters too dislikable, the dialogue too trite.

I don’t want to make this an essay about critical bias, but it’s hard not to touch on it. It felt like there was scarcely a reviewer who didn’t compare American Rust to Mare of Easttown, merely because each featured a detective solving a murder in Pennsylvania. (That's pretty much where the similarities ended.) But as if Mare of Easttown's Emmy chances were somehow threatened by American Rust, the critics used the former to denigrate the latter. The Playlist cautioned that “anyone looking for another Mare of Easttown is likely to be disappointed.” Who thinks like that? What viewer sits down to a TV show and says, “Gee, I hope it’s another Mare of Easttown?” Most of us just sit down to something new and think, I hope it’s good. The Telegraph insisted that “Mare of Easttown got there first and did it way better.” Ignoring for the moment the question of what “it” is, no, Mare of Easttown did not get there first. Philipp Meyer wrote the novel American Rust in 2009, and the TV adaptation was greenlighted in 2017, a full two years before Mare. (In the old days, we’d accuse one show of ripping off another, and it fell to the critics to correct us, by noting that the one that premiered later had gone into production earlier. Nowadays, we’re stuck having to correct the critics. What’s happened?) And nothing beat Peter Travers’ comment at ABC News, where he referred to the series as “a gender-flipped Mare of Easttown.” He was referencing the lead detective being a man instead of a woman: apparently his sole criterion for one property being a “gender flipped” version of another. By that logic, I guess, Cagney & Lacey is a gender-flipped Starsky & Hutch. Good to know the new ground rules.

For the record, I found Mare of Easttown a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the word, but I like my TV a little rougher around the edges: a bit less aware that it’s ticking off boxes. To its great credit, it was the rare crime drama where the identity of the killer felt truly convincing: not just in terms of motive and opportunity, but in terms of clues laid and themes explored. But at the end of the day, I found Mare such a slick endeavor that very little of it stuck with me; I digested it amiably, then pretty much forgot what I’d just sampled.

American Rust had staying power. It built beautifully across nine weeks, immersing us in the tenor of a town facing economic decline and battered by a sort of societal malaise. Yes, it took its time getting going; how lovely that showrunner Dan Futterman so trusted Meyer’s characters that he was willing to let us get to know them before overwhelming us with the burdens of plot. The first week teased us with the promise of a murder to be solved; the second week was almost entirely devoted to a local wedding, where we were further introduced to the large principal cast, and began to understand the bonds and grudges and concerns that defined this town. It was a daring way of building a narrative — and it paid off. By the fourth week, I was so engrossed that I found myself looking forward to 7 PM on Sundays; I was insistent on watching live. It was the rare series that seemed to be genuinely unfolding rather than packaged as entertainment; the viewing experience became an event. (Once the series concluded, I felt a hole in my weekly viewing schedule.)

Set in a town in Western Pennsylvania not too far from the West Virginia line, sometime prior to the 2016 Presidential Election, American Rust concerned itself with a group of people who had been made to feel undeserving: of success, of happiness, of an honest living and a living wage. Life had ground them into the dirt, but through the course of nine episodes, they rose again: some with renewed bravery, or loyalty, or a greater sense of self — and others without compassion or compunction. How far will people go, it asked — specifically to look out for those they love? In a world where folks have so little, they choose to project all of their hopes onto one person — a lover, a son, a best friend, an old girlfriend — and American Rust asks: what sacrifices will they make to hold onto that? What horrible decisions will they double down on? What deals will they broker with the devil? (Crucially, the “whodunnit” aspect of the plot was wrapped up early. American Rust didn’t need or desire a murder mystery to sustain suspense. The tension lay in the misplaced loyalties, the suppressed secrets and — on a broader level — the poverty, lack of employment opportunities and opioid crisis that had battered the town and its residents. This was so far removed from Mare of Easttown territory that the comparisons became not only annoying but laughable.)

These were big questions thrust upon ordinary people, and the dialogue — far from being trite — captured the poetic cadences of everyday speech. No one in American Rust indulged in flowery prose; perhaps the critics were looking for the kind of dialogue these characters weren’t capable of. They were plain-spoken, but their lines reeked of disillusion; they engaged in a sort of plaintive shorthand, one forged from a shared discontent. And the series was blessed with a group of actors adept at saying as much in silence as in speech. It’s not a trait I typically associate with younger performers, but American Rust boasted two, Alex Neustaedter and David Alvarez, for whom expressiveness came easily. (Only Julia Mayorca, whose character served as the link between Neustaedter and Alvarez‘s, seemed a bit lost without lines, but as her character was a recent returnee from the big city, her emotional guardedness made story sense.)

No motives were simple in American Rust. Good people seemed just a step away from doing something foolish or foul. Awful people showed unforeseen potential for redemption. The character complexity — which you often get in a good novel, but which so rarely makes its way to the small screen, even in the best of adaptations — was gratifying. By the midway mark, characterization had so come to take precedence over plot (and over “solving the murder” in particular) that Futterman could engage in a duo of detours that filled in one character’s backstory while furthering another’s emotional journey; that the series seemed no less taut for straying so far from its main story-line was a mark of Futterman‘s tight grip on the narrative.

There was no scene in 2021 I found better played — or more unnerving — than one in the penultimate episode of American Rust. (Spoilers ahead: feel free to skip the next three paragraphs, and return after you’ve watched.) Maura Tierney’s Grace Poe, a seamstress who’s sustained work-related injuries to her hands, has been striving to unionize the plant where she works. But the union vote didn’t go the way she wanted — plus her son is sitting in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Tired of playing by the rules, she’s torched her trailer for the insurance money. She’s been keeping company with Jeff Daniels’ Del Harris, the local police chief; now she finds herself at Del’s cabin, and as he pours her a cup of coffee, she’s quick to ask, “Is there anything we can do?” He thinks she’s talking about the fire, but she corrects him: “About Billy. My son is gonna spend the rest of his life in that prison, and he’s not gonna make it.”

And still Del’s not biting (“What you need is a good night’s sleep”), so she apologizes: “Sorry: my mind is ... all over the place” — the “all over the place” permitting her to double back to her objective later. They confirm that she’ll be moving in, and he looks so gratified to have someone sharing his sad life with him. She promises him, “I am gonna take such good care of you,” and he recites, almost on cue, “I’m gonna take good care of you too, Grace.” And then she doubles down, as if forging not just a bond, but a contract: “Because this is what this is now, right?” — and again, he parrots, “This is what this is now. Yes.” (“This is what this is now” — I still marvel at the elegiac shorthand.) She lays her hands on her shoulders: “I am all yours, Del. You have me completely. And we are gonna go above and beyond for each other. Because I would do anything for you.” And now, where it’s all been leading: “Would you do anything for me?” He responds in the affirmative, and she brings their heads together.

And in that moment of intimacy, he’s moved to say more than he should, because all he wants is to please and impress her; he reveals that he’s located the man who falsely identified her son. She doesn’t waste a beat: “Then you know what has to be done. I want to hear you say it. Say it, Del.” “I know,” he dutifully echoes, but she’s not satisfied yet: “You know what?” And he complies: “I know what has to be done.” And they pull each other close. This is the kind of meaty stuff that only two pros like Maura Tierney and Jeff Daniels can pull off. She cares for him, but she knows he cares for her more, and she’s willing to use that to get what she wants. And he knows that he cares for her more, and he’s willing to be used. And so when she doubles down on the subject of her son, and the crime that needs to be committed to get him set free, he acquiesces. These two have been our heroes: our moral compasses. And now they’ve forged a devil’s pact — one born out of love, loneliness, anger, fear and futility. Would you advocate murder to save your son, and would you commit that murder to satisfy the woman you love?

American Rust is a masterful and disturbing series. Showtime, somewhat predictably, canceled it after one season (the critics told folks to pass on it, and they did), but in a surprise move months later, it was picked up for a second season by Amazon’s new streaming service Freevee. (It’s currently got a viewer rating of 7.3 at IMDb, with a whole lot of people expressing disbelief at the awful reviews. Sometimes I, the proverbial cheese, do not stand alone.) This is a perfect time to prepare for Season 2 by settling into Season 1. Or if the premise of American Rust seems a little bleak, and you’re in the mood for something lighter and pulpier, consider The Offer — or as it’s better known:

“A forgettable, God-awful low point in television — Rolling Stone

“A soulless, vapid piece of Content™.” — IndieWire

“A generic carousel of flat anecdotes.” — The AV Club

The Hollywood Reporter handed down this verdict: “If The Godfather took a schlocky Mario Puzo novel and elevated it to prestige, The Offer has taken a prestigious movie and lowered it back down to schlock.” It was a clever turn of phrase; it was just wildly off the mark. The Offer is a story about all the dreary decision-making and everyday mayhem that goes into creating a work of art — in this case, The Godfather. The ordinariness is the point. Creating art is grueling and frustrating, and it seems like you spend half your time driving home the same point to people who refuse to listen. I’ve never worked in film, but I’ve spent 40 years in the entertainment industry. You never want your audience to see the sweat, but the sweat is there: not just the sweat of passion and inspiration, but the sweat of endless, pointless discussions — of trying to get through to money people who don’t understand artistry and to artists who don’t understand the occasional need for compromise. The Offer is about the mundane meetings, and the threats, and the power plays; it’s about the thousands of acts of microagression. It’s about the egos that get in the way and the egos that save the day. Shouldn’t critics — who actually function in the entertainment industry — understand what the art of making art is like? Shouldn’t they appreciate the effort The Offer makes to illuminate the basic facts of moviemaking to an audience that's probably unaware that — to paraphrase Frank Loesser — art isn’t born, it’s made?

The Offer is a facile work about the business of making movies. It’s about knowing when to compromise and when not to. It’s about finding common ground with people you normally wouldn’t be caught dead with. It’s about the fact that — as Stephen Sondheim once reminded me — whoever shouts the loudest gets their way. It’s about justifying your daily existence. And it’s about keeping your eye on the prize.

It’s not a series about how The Godfather got great; it’s a series about how The Godfather got made. Although, to its tremendous credit, there are flashes of how it got great: a lot of director Francis Ford Coppola holding to his vision, a lot of producer Al Ruddy fighting for that vision — and a lot of the creative team being allowed to do what they do best, which is rarer in this business than you might think. And there’s an extraordinary scene where Coppola invites the newly hired principal cast out to a private dinner, and there, little by little, they begin to improvise in the personalities of the characters they’ll be portraying. You’re two steps removed from reality — these actors are playing those actors playing those characters — but it’s magical, in the way that the best moviemaking it is. You’re drawn so thoroughly into the illusion, you momentarily forget that it’s all a conjuring trick.

But mostly, The Offer answers the question: how did a three-hour gangster movie get made and released at a time when three-hour movies were anathema, when gangster movies were box office poison, and when Paramount was still reeling from a string of high-profile flops like Paint Your Wagon and Darling Lili? And in its understanding of the workings of the film industry, it gets all the important details right. When Coppola has to sell himself to studio boss Robert Evans, he recognizes Evans as a creative soulmate and knows he can indulge a bit: “You think it’s about the drug trade in New York City in 1946. Not at all. It’s a metaphor for American capitalism. The American dream. The mythic battle for control. What is our opening line? ‘I believe in America.’ How perfect is that? And what is America to this undertaker? It’s a land of opportunity. And it’s a justice system that has failed him. It’s Shakespeare, it’s Greek. Biblical. Epic.” Whereas when producer Al Ruddy has to make his pitch to Charles Bluhdorn, head of Gulf and Western (which owns Paramount), he knows that Bluhdorn needs something short and sexy: “Tell me already,” Bluhdorn demands, “what are you going to do with this fucking film?” (It’s Burn Gorman, sporting a thick Austrian accent that sounds too preposterous to be anything but perfect.) And Ruddy is ready for him: “I’m going to make an ice-blue terrifying film about people you love.” (Bluhdorn has no idea what it means, but it smells like a hit.)

Creator and headwriter Michael Tolkin (who knows his way around a soundstage) sees to it that all the big showbiz moments resonate. There’s a magnificent scene in the penultimate episode when Evans’ bitter rival Barry Lapidus (a fictional creation, a surrogate for all those at Gulf and Western who didn’t want to see The Godfather get made, who considered film a business rather than an art form) has weaseled his way into Evans’ job and office. He’s spent the better part of two years bitter and backstabbing, and he finally has what he wants, but as he sits surrounded by scripts in need of shepherding and stares at the framed celebrity photos and magazine covers on the wall — all of them trumpeting Evans’ personal connections and professional accomplishments — he realizes he’s not the right man for the moment. He has a silent epiphany, a self-induced comeuppance. It expertly evokes one of the sad truths of the entertainment industry, that people with power become so consumed with seeing their enemies fail, they lose track of how they themselves might succeed. It’s character development and showbiz insight rolled into one.

Critics complained that it was impossible to know how much of The Offer was real and how much was fabricated. (Case in point: the composite character Barry Lapidus.) But that was the case with The Godfather too. Mario Puzo wrote a story about a fictitious crime family that smacked of truth. (There was no doubt who certain characters were meant to be; Frank Sinatra’s umbrage at the book’s very existence takes up quite a bit of screentime, as well it should.) That blurring of fact and fiction was part of what made The Godfather so enticing, and it works its magic here, too. Did Robert Evans really melt down in such spectacular fashion when wife Ali MacGraw began an affair with Steve McQueen? Probably. Were Ruddy and his assistant Bettye McCartt really shot at by gangsters? Possibly. Did a mob hit really change the fate of The Godfather, just as the cast and crew were filming the shooting of Don Corleone? Unlikely. But it makes for great television.

The miniseries’ greatest flaw is that its lead character is also its blandest. As played by Miles Teller (a last-minute replacement for Armie Hammer, and thank God), Al Ruddy has an admirable devotion to the people he believes in and an enviable ability to charm his way into any office, but he lacks the spark of creative genius that the teleplay suggests. The worst scene in the miniseries comes early on, when Ruddy pitches Hogan’s Heroes to some network bigwigs. As Ruddy envisions and improvises each role, nothing about Teller’s performance suggests the sort of off-the-cuff frenzy that could wow a roomful of jaded executives. Even early in his career, when he’s struggling to be a creative, Ruddy already seems like a suit: like a well-meaning, dedicated producer with a knack for smoothing over artistic differences, and a never-say-die attitude. And a certain amount of bravery, as he'll prove when he ingratiates himself with the mob to save his movie. But I don’t know Al Ruddy — do you? He’s had a remarkable career, and that may be exactly what he’s like, or the miniseries may be hobbled by being told through his eyes, from his recollections, By eliminating the thornier parts of his personality, he may have inadvertently blanded himself out. Teller is amiable and attractive, and if he just stops just this side of being charismatic, it really doesn’t do The Offer any harm, especially when he’s surrounded by such an formidable cast of characters — and I do mean “characters.”

Matthew Goode, as you’ve probably heard, walked off with the reviews. As Robert Evans, he doesn’t just nail the voice and the mannerisms. He catches the mania and the bravura, the burden of being both voluptuary and visionary. (You understand why Bluhdorn puts up with his eccentricities and unpredictability; a born salesman himself, he recognizes a kindred spirit.) Critics praised Goode for enlivening the series, and wished that the other actors had his level of showmanship. Did they want everyone on the set to perform at that pitch? For my money, the characters were extraordinarily well balanced: Coppola‘s defensiveness, Ruddy’s smooth-talking skills, McCartt’s practicality, Bluhdorn’s fury, Lapidus’s oiliness. Some of it may be accurate, most of it might be accurate. It doesn’t really matter. All those people are out there in Hollywood, and it’s that alchemy of unlikely allies and frequent antagonists that occasionally results in creative brilliance.

As for The Hollywood Reporter’s comment about “schlock,” look around. Our lives are schlock. Decision-making is dreary. Responsibility is a drag. The best movies have always taken us away from ourselves. (That’s why the screwballs of the ’30s, considered slight at the time, have proven one of the Hollywood’s most enduring genres, because they liberate us.) The very point of The Offer is that everything going on behind the scenes is schlock. It’s inferior. It’s not dull, but it’s dreary. You don’t have to be a fan of The Godfather to appreciate The Offer; you simply have to have seen a film at some point in your life. You have to understand its transcendent power. And then The Offer reminds you that the people making the decisions — both the corporate moguls in the sky, whose bottom line is the almighty dollar, and the creatives on the set, busy fixating on the shadows across the actors’ faces and the proper size of a Yuletide prop — are leading the same humdrum lives as the rest of us. They’re trying to balance budgets, and win arguments, and carve out some semblance of autonomy in a business where collaboration is key. They’re trying to sustain relationships and salvage their marriages. Oh, and on a bad day, they’re trying not to get whacked by the mob. The Offer, by embracing the “schlock” of our lives, reminds us of the mythic, mystic power of movies. It’s the rare TV series that got bashed for doing exactly what it intended to do, and making the very point it intended to, and for that reason alone, it might be a must-see. Or if you’re in the mood for something headier, with more of a touch of romance, check out The Time Traveler’s Wife — or as it was dubbed by critics:

“So bad on every level that it is hard to pinpoint blame.” — San Francisco Chronicle

“A calamity.” — Entertainment Weekly

“Woeful, pointless television [ranging] from mediocre to horrible.” — Roger Ebert.com

“A multiverse of badness.” — Time Magazine

As noted, HBO canceled The Time Traveler’s Wife after one season. I shouldn’t be surprised. The reviews were dreadful, and the HBO audience is precisely the kind that’s apt to defer to critics. For the record, I found it enchanting. I struggled with the more lugubrious aspects of Andrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel (true confession: I couldn’t get through it), but I was entranced by the wizardry of Steven Moffat’s TV adaptation. And so was my husband. We sat there after every episode dumbfounded by the disconnect between what we had just witnessed and what the critics had moaned about.

And speaking of moaning, here are some of their more obtuse comments. Reviewers who hadn’t read the novel complained there wasn’t sufficient time taken to explain the premise — as if the premise requires more than two sentences. (Henry has a genetic defect that causes him to time travel unpredictably. He and Clare keep meeting in the wrong order, until they finally connect in the present day and marry. There: 31 words.) But Variety countered, “So much time is spent establishing the rules of [the game] that there’s little room to play.” So which is it? Not enough time or too much time? The critic for The Telegraph, who has apparently seen no television in the last two decades, whined, “The adaptation is so lazy that episodes begin with the lead characters reading lines straight into the camera, rather than anyone making the effort to work them into the script.” Yes, because no other TV series has ever had characters directly address the viewer (insert “rolls eyes” emoji). And Time Magazine grumbled, “The show [neglects] to establish a fixed, forward-moving ‘present.’” But the show establishes its fixed present in the opening episode, when 20-year-old Clare runs into 28-year-old Henry, the first time they’ve met when he wasn’t time traveling. Their ensuing relationship forms the foundation for the five episodes that follow, and the forays into the past and future become offshoots of that; I don’t see how it could be clearer. As with American Rust and The Offer, it felt like the critics were looking for things to gripe about.

(As an aside, I don’t know when critics started expecting everything to be laid out in episode 1 — for the characters to be fully formed, for the tenor of the show to be set in stone. In the old days, it was assumed that if a show were promising, it would fulfill that promise. You gave it the benefit of the doubt. Today, critics see one episode — or in the case of American Rust, three — and presume that’s all there is to it. That that’s as far as the storytelling is going to go, that that’s as rich as the characters are going to get. There’s no expectation — as so often happens in the best serialized stories — of greater things to come. When did critics lose imagination, and faith — particularly when dissecting the works of proven talents?)

So let’s set the record straight, because we’re not getting a Season 2, and for that reason you may not bother to watch Season 1, presuming it must’ve been “that bad.” It wasn’t. The Time Traveler’s Wife took a challenging book and adapted it smoothly and smartly for the small screen. Moffat, who certainly knows his way around what he once coined “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff,” gave it shape. He took an expansive piece of literature and expertly molded it into a six-episode season, giving each installment a distinct purpose and point of view, not to mention structure and pace. He retained all the appeal of the novel and addressed all of its defects, paying special attention to the ones that time had been harshest to.

And in particular, he made the most of Niffenegger’s central conceit, which cast aside the cardinal rule of time travel: that you can't meet yourself in the past or future. Niffenegger laid waste to what sci-fi fans refer to as "The Grandfather Paradox"; in The Time Traveler's Wife, multiple versions of Henry frequently share the stage. Not merely share the stage, but interact. Not merely interact, but alter each other's behavior and life choices. Moffat had never permitted himself to explore that temporal paradox on Doctor Who, but you can sense his exhilaration at making full use of it here; his teleplay becomes a Rubik’s Cube of previously unimagined possibilities. And Moffat neatly varies the tricks: sometimes the multiple Henry’s are used for comic effect; sometimes they serve an emotional payoff. And sometimes they’re there mostly to ease and enliven exposition.

I can’t imagine a more masterful adaptation of Niffenegger’s novel, and the people who actually watched seem to agree with me. It’s currently got an audience grade of 83 on Metacritic (as opposed to the 45 from reviewers). And it’s easy to dismiss that and say, well, of course, those are the people who were already fans of the book. But audience polls no longer skew to the positive; the viewers who go online to rate and review are typically the ones who delight in complaining. The satisfied tend to stay silent. So if anything, I’d say that score of 83 is on the low side. What viewers there were loved it, but it’s reasonable to presume there weren’t a lot of them, because the critics had encouraged them to stay away.

For my money, the critics so fixated on one part of Moffat’s resumé, they couldn’t see their way to the heart of the series. Almost every review I read made much of Moffat’s tenure on Doctor Who. The ones who knew the series referenced the back-to-front relationship between the Doctor and River Song (which Moffat has long admitted was inspired by The Time Traveler's Wife); the ones who didn’t know Doctor Who kept bringing up one of Moffat’s earliest efforts, “The Girl in the Fireplace,” as if they crammed for their review by watching one 43-minute episode and inferring what they could about his outlook, his style and his shortcomings. But no one seemed to remember that Moffat’s first big success came not in science fiction or fantasy, but in romantic comedy. In screwball. In Coupling, his quirky, long-running sitcom that took on contemporary relationships among a group of twentysomethings.

And it’s that experience — as much as his time on Doctor Who — that made Moffat the perfect choice to adapt Niffenegger’s novel. The reviewer for Decider, who urged audiences to “skip it,” concluded, “It doesn’t help that the show is cheekier than it really needs to be.” The Oxford Dictionary defines “cheeky” as “impudent or irreverent, typically in an endearing or amusing way.” I would argue that the TV adaptation is precisely as cheeky as it needs to be. Niffenegger’s swoony romanticism transferred directly to the screen would be suffocating. Moffat retained the novel’s concept, its characters and its plotting, but he transformed the tempo from adagio to allegretto with his ear for bright dialogue, his disregard for civility and convention, and his keen understanding of the awkward intensity of new relationships. Without sacrificing any of the novel’s suspense — or element of danger — he blanketed the proceedings with a sense of humor and a sharper wit that made the series (to this viewer, at least) far more palatable and pleasing than the source material. Some folks who loved the novel bemoaned the more antagonistic relationship between Henry and Clare in the TV series. It seemed evident to me that their bickering — as in the best romantic comedies — betrayed their burgeoning affection; I found their relationship all the more compelling for not being so damned sincere.

As good as Moffat’s teleplay was, any adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife boils down to the chemistry between the two leads. And Theo James and Rose Leslie had chemistry to spare; they convinced at every stage of their onscreen lives. James, who is often the best thing about projects he’s attached to (Season 2 of Sanditon was unwatchable without him) was equally good at capturing young Henry — all brash and shaggy-haired and petulant and condescending — and older Henry, the white flecks in his hair reflecting a newfound maturity and serenity. Henry’s inability to control his time leaps meant James had to master most of the series’ tonal leaps — Henry never knew where he’d land next, or what challenges he’d have to instantly address and overcome — and James managed it all with ease. And he explored his character’s central conflict — when Henry, who knows precious little about what lies ahead, is suddenly, at 28, confronted by a woman declaring she’s his future wife — with both fervor and nuance. You empathized with his resistance to becoming the man Clare expected him to be — and you understood why he ultimately made it his mission.

I confess, I had no idea who Rose Leslie was, but I can’t imagine anyone essaying the role of Clare with greater skill and grace. She completely convinced as a late adolescent discovering — and betrayed by — her emergent sexuality, then realizing and harnessing its power. And she was equally persuasive as a young adult. You saw how Henry’s earliest visits had given her purpose and clarity, and you understood how his two-year absence had caused her to grow reckless and selfish. And you felt the full force of her disappointment when the man who finally emerged before her in the present day — the man she’d long been destined to meet in “real time” — failed to live up to her outsized expectations. The show rises or falls on these two performances. It didn’t just rise; it soared. I don’t know the last time I was so smitten by a love story on the small screen — I might have to go all the way back to James Norton and Lily James in War and Peace, and when was that? 2016? I personally feel that every six years or so, I’m owed a decent onscreen romance.

The Time Traveler’s Wife posits that the future is fixed, and there’s nothing we can do to change it. Henry and Clare can make different life choices, but those choices will still lead them to their shared destiny. That the teleplay manages to make predetermination seem alluring rather than alarming is one of its many strengths. It convinces us that we’re hurtling towards a common purpose, towards something magical, and in an eerie way, it was exactly the right show for the spring of 2022, as our country seemingly barreled towards fascism. It was the great lie we so desperately needed. As American Rust asserts, life is grim and our prospects uncertain; as The Offer reminds us, film has always held the promise of escape. The Time Traveler’s Wife delivers on that promise. Ignore the critics and treat yourself to a much-needed diversion.


Want more? Check out an essay called "Men in the Middle, highlighting four recent series that owe much of their success to the onscreen personas of their leading men: The Tourist, This Is Going to Hurt, The Responder and Around the World in 80 Days; an essay entitled "Rough Edges," in praise of two addictive comedies that I discovered in 2021, Back to Life and The Other Two; another entitled "Private Faces," highlighting two spectacular series that emerged in the fall of 2020, Roadkill and Life; and a fourth called "Unwilling Victims," taking a look at three recent series by and about women: The Trial of Christine Keeler, Deadwater Fell and Flesh and Blood. I offer up The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching, Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss, and my most personal essay, inspired by the death of my puppy Czerny in June of 2021, The 10 Most Comforting TV Episodes About Death.

If you like in-depth looks at hit shows, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, Maude Season 2, Newhart Season 7, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2; serve up my 10 Best Episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Designing Women, WKRP in Cincinnati and Kate & Allie; pen an appreciation of Mike & Molly; and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons. Or if you prefer dramas, check out my write-ups of of Criminal Minds Season 8, Judging Amy Season 6, Voyager Season 4, Doctor Who Series 8, Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent, ill-judged Netflix miniseries), and fourteen essays devoted to all the seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries: not (necessarily) the best episodes, but the best whodunnits.

8 comments:

  1. I can only write in regards to The Time Traveler's Wife as I didn't watch the other shows - but I'm certain I was watching a different show to the critics. We finished it last week and were captivated the whole time. Maybe it's because I've spent my life watching sci-fi shows, but I really didn't need any more explanation as to his time travel than what was laid out in the screenplay. The little notes on screen to tell me everyone's age did the job and helped me get my head in the right place.

    I was really disappointed to find out that they're not getting a second season as everyone I've spoken to about the show has loved it.

    I loved your description of the show as a Rubik's Cube - just perfect. And yes, it does feel like Moffatt was just having so much fun writing all of the things that he wasn't able to get into Doctor Who. This is the sort of storytelling that I'd like to see more of on Who - they're always so linear there.

    I'm always surprised when someone else has seen Coupling - it ran for a few seasons over here but didn't really get the penetration into the general consciousness that it deserved. Some elements in the storytelling there were similar to his work on Who and Time Traveler's Wife - lots of playing with time and perception of various events. This has definitely pushed me into a rewatch of that series - I'm going to have to see if I can find it on streaming as I've probably lost my physical copies.

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    1. It’s rare that I’ve loved so many shows in the course of a year that the critics have given such brutal reviews to. Not just negative, but nasty. I didn’t even include some of the worst ones. Entertainment Weekly said something about Time Traveler’s Wife like “come for the ass, stay for the crap.” What could possibly have inspired that level of loathing? I don’t understand the tone of the reviews: in every department, the show boasted industry professionals of inestimable talent, and their commitment to the project was clear; this wasn’t some slapdash affair. I can imagine it not being to some people‘s taste, but I can’t explain the level of condescension. Like you two, Philip and I loved it, as did all of our friends.

      Regarding Coupling: when Philip and I first discovered Doctor Who, around 2010, we were so taken by Moffat’s writing, we decided to check out what else he had done, and at that time Coupling was up on either YouTube or Daily Motion. We loved it. A lot of British series from between 2000 and 2005 that used to be streamable are, sadly, gone now. I was getting ready last week to write about a short-lived series from 2005 called The Golden Hour, which I’d seen a few times at YouTube, and now it’s not there anymore. Ah well…

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  2. Another great offering Tommy. We don't have the fancy premium cable and/or streaming services so haven't seen any of these yet. I was interested in TTTW, but will need to check the other two out now.

    And I didn't realize that Theo James stars in TTTW. My wife's interest in watching the series will increase once I tell her...

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    1. I imagine your wife’s interest will increase exponentially when you tell her that Theo James is naked for about half of it. :)

      I will look forward to your thoughts on TTTW. It’s sort of Moffat unleashed, so I really think it’ll be to your taste.

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  3. Another great blogpost. :) Your reviews manage to get me wildly interested in shows I would otherwise never notice or decide against. (“The Offer", for instance, was never on our radar...but it certainly is now. ) And we both LOVED American Rust. I did not realize it had been trashed by the critics, and as is my frequent issue with music critics, I just don't get it.

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    1. So glad to hear that you, too, enjoyed 'American Rust.' The reviews were so overwhelmingly awful, I didn't realize how many viewers like myself loved it until I started researching this essay. I'm so glad that Amazon recognized the achievement and the potential for a second season, and gave it a surprise pick-up.

      And do let me know what you think of 'The Offer' if you watch. :)

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  4. So, I am finally getting around to re-reading this and wanted to comment. I might try to give AMERICAN RUST a chance...it was sitting on our TV queue for a while and I do really like Jeff Daniels. Also, its setting near Pittsburgh is appealing as I grew up only an hour away in WV so I feel like I could relate to that atmosphere rather well.

    Critical praise these days can be a huge detriment to a show. I know that I was a tad underwhelmed by MARE OF EASTTOWN as a whole, even though I certainly enjoyed it and felt it mostly succeeded...but you would've thought that it was The Second Coming of Christ based on reviews.

    That can even be said for movies as well. I was left surprisingly underwhelmed by EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE even though it is breaking indie box office records and has gotten such strong reviews that many are saying it could be the first real genre film to finally break into the Best Picture race. And yet...it lost me about half way through and now I feel like most of it rests in my mind like a bunch of pieces of shattered glass.

    Sometimes, hype does actually feel worthy. I still remember seeing PARASITE in November 2019 when the early word for it was so intense that I was a bit skeptical...and yet...it met and even exceeded those high expecatations.

    I can't speak for THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE but I did feel in line with the critics regarding THE OFFER. I stopped watching that one after a couple of episodes.

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    1. These days I seem to be fonder of the shows that *don’t* get the huge critical praise. It’s easily, in my 55+ years of TV viewing, the most out of touch I have felt with the critical community. I’ll love the things they’re lukewarm about, and frequently tune out after a few episodes of the things they’re most passionate about. If you do give 'American Rust' a try, let me know what you think. A lot of the most interesting things I've seen the last few years have been on Showtime ('American Rust,' 'Back to Life,' and currently, of the three vampire shows that began earlier this month, 'Let the Right One In'), but I find that, by and large, most of Showtime's content gets overlooked or dismissed. I don't get it.

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