A lightweight charmer, ABC’s “That Was Then” takes most of its cues from “Back to the Future” while hitting some clever notes of its own. One of the fall season’s two time-travel series, along with the WB’s “Do Over,” show is poignant and smart, and its cast is a pleasant lot that mixes unknowns with vet thesps Bess Armstrong and Jeffrey Tambor. The upside is strong — it’s sweet and sentimental — but the downside is a fate similar to critical faves “Freaks and Geeks” and “My So-Called Life,” two skeins that won raves but no ratings.
Travis Glass (James Bulliard) is a 29-year-old door salesman, lives at home with mom Mickey (Armstrong) and pines nonstop for Claudia (Kiele Sanchez), the high school girl of his dreams who is married to older brother Gregg (Brad Raider). Travis’ loser status apparently started after one humiliating week in 1988 — a week, he tells best friend Donnie (Tyler Lapine), that he aches to revisit.
Presto. While lying on his bed one night jamming to the Kinks’ “Do It Again,” a bolt of lightning sends Travis back, when his point-spread-loving dad (Tambor) was still alive, his English teacher was still hot and his potential was still bright.
Things don’t go as planned, of course — with this expedition, Travis almost wins Claudia’s heart, saves a friend from an oncoming train and discovers his mother’s affair. Just when it seems he’s on the right path, he’s transported back to 2002, where events have indeed changed … but not as he wanted: He’s married to the class busybody and running for public office, so he wants to go back yet again in order to set things straight.
Like Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 pic, “That Was Then” is fueled as much by its leading man as by its gimmick, which is, in the hands of director Alan Myerson and scribe Jeremy Miller, as fresh as ever. Most intriguing subplot involves the father-son relationship; since Tyler knows the outcome to every sporting event — here it’s the Los Angeles Dodgers-Oakland A’s battle — it’s a hoot to watch him persuade pop to bet one way or the other.
Biggest problem will be carrying over its one note from week to week; for all of its ambitious attempts to revert to present day at the end of every episode, the idea starts to wear thin, and the situations everyone is thrown into become goofier and more frenzied.
Perfs are the strong suit, with Canadian tyro Bulliard growing even more affable as the debut unfurls. He’s perfect as a person who may not have “scored” much in his teens but has become an introspective and mature person despite his current funk. Supporting cast is tops, with Lapine, who tries a little too hard to ape Jack Black, providing the hyperactivity. Armstrong and Tambor are credible and moving as parents who’ve fallen out of love; newcomer Sanchez has virtue and spunk; and Raider looks the part of a no-prospects couch potato.
Below-the-liners have nailed the look and feel. Vincent Jefferds’ production design and Scott Williams’ lensing capture an innocence that has since been replaced by a more sophisticated edge in most current programming. Musical selections are terrific — debut alone has, among other selections, George Michael (“Faith”) and Was Not Was (“Walk the Dinosaur”), an obvious choice since David and Don Was serve as music supervisors.