There are three things wrong with The Time Traveler’s Wife (Monday 16 May, 9pm, Sky Atlantic), the HBO miniseries of the 2003 book that already spawned a 2009 film (I am past caring about remakes, before you start; I live in a post-caring about remakes world). The first is the music, which seems more befitting of a 90s adventure movie where a boy moves house but forgets his beloved dog. A minor quibble, but you won’t be able to un-hear it once you notice it, too. The second and third problems are the same issue in different forms: The Time Traveler’s Wife miniseries is affected by two of the dominant trends in TV and film-making over the last 15 years – to-camera mockumentary confessionals, and the smart-alec dialogue of Marvel movies. Put it like this: if I went back in time and made it so that Iron Man and Rashida Jones’s entire TV career never happened, The Time Traveler’s Wife would be a completely different show. A much, much better show.
I’ll get the Marvel stuff out of the way so fans who set up Google Alerts about the movies can quickly skip to berating me on Twitter: I like Marvel movies, I think it’s impressive that they have re-invented the “supporting movie franchises like a football team” thing they cribbed from Star Wars, and it’s equally impressive that all those dozens of movies and shows later there is still a cohesive through-line to the whole thing. That said, Marvel’s signature “Yeah … that just happened”, hollow-centred snappy banter has personally started to grate, so to see it show up in The Time Traveler’s Wife is particularly jarring. In Marvel movies, those affectedly light moments are so good at punctuating the earnestness of superheroes declaring undying love in the midst of an alien war; in a TV production that is essentially a romantic drama with a pesky sci-fi element getting in the way, it gets annoying fast. Rose Leslie’s Clare and Theo James’s Henry are both very good, but sometimes they talk to each other like they’re two Funko Pops trying to birth a new catchphrase.
The other trope leaned on here is the to-camera confessional, made popular by the behemothic American Office and stolen wholesale by Parks and Recreation and now I never, ever ever have to see it again. To reiterate: in future, if an actor speaks into a camera with a faux-puzzled, “Where do I start?” while a fake “REC” blinks in the corner, I will be switching off. Throughout The Time Traveler’s Wife – and if you’ve not read the book or seen the movie, it’s a delightfully full-hearted romantic story where mortal Clare and out-of-control time-travel weirdo Henry fall in love, just in a different chronological order to one another – we see the two leads sigh and wistfully tell their sides of the story to the camera (in fluent Marvelese, of course, so it’s either vague-but-powerful-feeling statements about human nature or some goofy gag that happens before Theo James’s clothes fly off, which they do almost constantly). I see the perks of this – we, the dim-witted audience, are given an out-loud peek into a character’s psyche and their emotional reaction to any given situation, because they explain it to us like we’re idiots – but … hmm, no. That’s what’s bad about it, too. Please, television, let me figure out what a character is thinking without them telling me! I know time travel is complex, but let me do a bit of the heavy lifting!
Despite that – despite The Time Traveler’s Wife dinging not one but two of my TV pet peeves – I found myself really enjoying it. Theo James makes a good swing at levelling up from being the handsome guy in forgettable sci-fi (this, plus his upcoming White Lotus role, will probably assure he does make the Marvel leap sooner rather than later). Rose Leslie almost pulls off playing an age range of 16 to 80. Two British actors doing American accents very rarely feels delirious. The whole thing is headed up by Steven Moffat, and you can tell: given the extra time TV allows a story like this, and the freedom to spin out additional threads by updating it to the present day, you see a denser cast of characters and high-quality playfulness with the core sci-fi idea that you might not get from someone who isn’t yet bored of winning Baftas. All in all, it’s very good. I’d just loved to have seen it on the alternate timeline where it wasn’t also a little annoying.