Among life’s greatest questions (should I take that job? Did I do the right thing? Is this the person I should spend the rest of my life with?) perhaps the most important is: Terminator or Quantum Leap? And woe be the man who disregards it. Basically, if you’re going to entertain a time travel story, you need to decide the ground rules. Can the past be altered? What are the ramifications? Are time travelers encouraged to change history or should they stay out of it as much as possible? Or finally, should you say “fuck it”, and make John Hancock and Sam Adams talk about duck boning?
Fox’s new time travel comedy seems to have come down on the side of “don’t alter the past”, with a heavy side of duck boning. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I just wish it were working slightly better. Until last night’s episode, time travel functioned as a plot device more than anything else. They played in standard TV tropes while adding some absurdity by jumping through various centuries. Dan Chambers (Adam Pally, who’s amazing as usual) is the Average Joe trying to impress Deborah (
Brunette Gossip Girl Leighton Meester) who is wildly out of his league. Only instead of complex ruses about owning restaurants or being a millionaire, Dan could just claim to have invented the skateboard or written ‘My Heart Will Go On.’
Which is also where the show either becomes boring or hysterical. Take this exchange:
Dan: I dressed up as Cher and wrote a song for you, and I came out here and fell in this trap. And I realized I made a horrible mistake. Deborah: Because I don’t even know what Cher looks like? Dan: So there were a few mistakes made.
See, Dan dressing up as Cher in order to sing to Deborah isn’t funny. We’ve seen that. The basic mismatch in Dan and Deborah’s knowledge and experience can be wildly funny, but only if they really embrace the absurdity. (Also Leighton Meester is significantly funnier than I gave her credit for. I’m going to try really hard to stop calling her Brunette Gossip Girl after this.) And so it goes with most of the show’s jokes. Deborah asking if someone’s claimed a dead raccoon? Not funny. Saying she would never eat a road … unless there was a famine? Funny. Hancock and Adams acting as the Old Timey Wilson to Dan’s Time Traveling Tim Taylor? Actually not that funny. The phrase “clim-quacks”? Surprisingly funny. Chris’ (Yassir Lester) know-it-all best friend as well as can be expected, but also has a fairly limited role as the straight man. Until, of course, he gets to tell the random woman he saved that all black people are guardian angels. Even O.J.
Last night’s episode finally added a wrinkle by explaining that Chris, Deborah and Dan maybe aren’t actually changing the past. They might have delayed the start of the American Revolution, but it now looks like that was always going to be only temporary. And if all of the things that happened would always have to happen, we could start seeing fewer jaunts into the 18th century, and more critical junctions in the character’s lives. Given that the time in Lexington had basically run its course, I can’t see how that would be a bad thing.
Hopefully the expanded rules on time travel will force the show’s hand one way or another. If it’s going to settle for standard sitcom plotlines dressed up with the occasional time travel joke, it’s not going to last more than a season. If, on the other hand, it can go just a bit more meta, and really embrace the subversion of sitcoms time travel would allow them to, it could end up being at least season two of New Girl good. And at this point, it seems like the universe or time travel or just the good people at Fox owe that to Adam Pally. He really deserves a win.