TV Series Venture Into Fourth Dimension for 2016-17 Season

Time Traveling Bong Comedy Central
Courtesy of Comedy Central

Television is hooked on time travel. At this spring’s TV upfronts, every major network except CBS announced that it will air a show that involves time travel during the 2016-17 television season.

NBC will debut “Timeless,” a drama about a group of people who go back in time to alter history by stopping the Hindenburg disaster. Fox has set a midseason premiere for the time-travel comedy “Making History,” executive produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, co-starring Adam Pally and Leighton Meester.

ABC will air “Time After Time,” the television adaptation of a book that speculates over what would have happened had H.G. Wells — who is widely credited for popularizing the idea of time travel with his 1895 novel “The Time Machine” — actually had the ability to travel through time. And The CW has “Frequency,” an adaptation of the 2000 thriller about a father and son communicating across time with this use of a ham radio, tweaked for the weblet’s audience to focus on a father and daughter.

With these new shows joining the ranks of an already substantial slate — “Legends of Tomorrow” and “The Flash” on The CW, “Outlander” on Starz, “12 Monkeys” on Syfy, the limited series “11.22.63” and “Time Traveling Bong” on Hulu and Comedy Central, respectively, and even Bran Stark’s storyline on the current season of “Game of Thrones” — the sci-fi concept is a booming trend in programming, rivaling the obsession with reboots.

“[Time travel] is a really fun, delicious hook. But at the same time, it in and of itself is not
the mystery.”
bridget carpenter

The time-travel genre has a considerable history on the small screen, dating back to cartoons in the 1950s. Then, in 1963, “Doctor Who” picked up popularity, and later achieved icon status in the U.K. and around the world.

In the 1980s a fascination with time travel grew in the U.S. between feature films “Back to the Future” and “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” — in the 90s, both franchises would dip into television. Since its revival in 2005, “Doctor Who” has found a newfound popularity in the U.S., and J.J. Abrams’ “Fringe” left fans wanting more when it was cancelled after the 2012-13 television season. These days, time travel has become less of a niche, sci-fi novelty and more the norm, hitting on several key trends and themes that seem to work well for serialized programming.

For one, time travel creates dramatic tension straight from the get-go and gives the protagonist motivation. “I always trusted it,” says Bridget Carpenter, showrunner of “11.22.63,” which was adapted from a Stephen King novel. “I felt like even though it was rich and different, it was not confusing. Complicated maybe, but not confusing.”

In her show, Jake Epping [James Franco], enters a closet, deemed a “rabbit hole,” that sends him back in time to 1960 where he must attempt to thwart the assassination of President John Kennedy. “Time travel was a useful kick into the story, and then the story was the story. It was an inciting incident,” Carpenter says. “It’s a really fun, delicious hook. But at the same time, it in and of itself is not the mystery.”

The same applies to “Outlander,” which thrusts 1945 Englishwoman Claire Randall [Caitriona Balfe] into 1743. Time travel gives the character a motive — in this case to get back to her present. It is a way of shaking things up, and at its root, it tosses its fish [in this case, Randall] out of the water [where she was a British Army nurse].

Time-travel stories also make effective dramas because the main character becomes an analog for the spectator. Randall, in “Outlander,” enters a new world, and as she explores it and find out its rules, so do the viewers.

“It’s a very seductive story device,” says “Outlander” showrunner Ron Moore, who adds that “they’re sharing a secret with the audience. The audience has knowledge of the future with the character, and everyone else in the show does not. So you and the central character are in a little bit of a conspiracy.”

Carpenter adds that the audience can live vicariously through the main character and ask questions central to the human experience. “It is so human to think ‘what if?’ ” she says.

Out’ of Time: Caitriona Balfe’s “Outlander” heroine goes from 1945 to 1743.

By giving its protagonist the chance to go back and try to rewrite history, “11.22.63” presents a case for gripping personal reflection that extends beyond the show.

Moore, who has a long career working on science fiction shows [his credits include several iterations of “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica”], says that he liked the simplicity of how author Diana Gabaldon treated time travel in her book series, the source material for Moore’s television show. “I had done a lot of time-travel stories previously, so I knew the pitfalls, I knew the problems with carrying off the story like that,” he says.

To illustrate time travel, “Outlander” has Randall describe the experience in lieu of extreme CGI effects. “No matter what we did, it was going to cue the audience into, ‘Oh, guess what. It’s a science fiction piece.’ And I really didn’t want to do that,” Moore says.

In general, the visual part of time travel is presented on a spectrum, ranging from subtle to what “Time Traveling Bong” co-creator Ilana Glazer calls “being sucked up God’s [bong] shaft.” Charting new territory in the genre was also important for Glazer in creating her Comedy Central three-part miniseries.

From “Doctor Who” to “Back to the Future,” time-travel narratives are historically centered around white men, who have had the upper hand historically. “My character is obviously a woman and I’m a woman,” says Glazer.

She created “Time Traveling Bong” with her co-star, Paul W. Downs, and Lucia Aniello, who directed the series. When Glazer and Downs go back in time to the Salem witch trials, Glazer’s character is tortured, while Downs’ is championed.

Glazer says that when they were creating the show, one theme kept coming up: “It’s not going to be the same for these two traveling.”

“Time Traveling Bong” first appeared on CollegeHumor as a short sketch, and its punchline [apart from the fact that everything in the past smells bad] is that the white protagonists seize the opportunity to “free” a slave by bringing him back with them to the 21st Century — a plot point that comes back in the miniseries. “You see the slaves and it’s like, if you’re a person, [or] woman, of color it’s even harder and the hardest,” Glazer explains.

She said that time travel’s relationship with race and gender was a recurring point of inspiration for their project. “We kept laughing about ‘Looper’ [the 2012 time travel action thriller starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt], had he been black, or had he had a black friend. You just don’t see it,” Glazer says. “This guy, he can glide through space and time because he’s a handsome white dude.”

It seems likely that at least some of the ideas that Glazer and the other creators started grappling with will likely be an ongoing discussion in future programming. Already, there are indicators in the trailers for both “Making History” and “Timeless.” When ordered to join the team that will travel back in time in the NBC drama, Rufus [Malcolm Barrett], a black man, points out: “I can’t. I am black,” he says. “There is literally no place in American history that will be awesome for me.”

In a socially charged present, time travel is fertile ground for commentary.

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  1. I see very less is mentioned of 12monkeys which is not good as it is the show which have perfected
    Time-travel making a time travel is very hard as placing episode getting ideas what should come first
    and what should come next and how time travel should work in between to keep balance if you watch
    12monkeys you will know that they have taken those thing into consideration and also made it easy
    for normal audience to follow it,understand it and also keeping essence of time travel intact
    I know people feel it is sequel to the 12Monkeys film but it is not in any way the writers have done
    their own research on time travel and also all the possibilities of time travel and also the story is unique
    which is definitely more different from movie it has out shined the movie if you see the 12monkeys tv show you will know what I mean and I believe current trend in Tv shows is of time travel as many of the
    upcoming shows are also time travel based there was a time when one use to love vampires tv show now it is time for Time travel show and people are loving Time travel show
    I have seen not many of the above mentioned tv series just happened to see outlander and I felt
    it is also very nice show but nothing like 12 monkeys
    I really wish 12 monkeys should have been mentioned as if someone talks time travel and 12 Monkeys
    is not mentioned it is insult to Time travel shows hope next time in article 12 Monkeys gets mentions and believe me it is the best time travel show just watch and explore it you definitely love it though you will have to see more then 1 time to understand and I believe every time travel show you watch needs to be rewatched there is nothing wrong with that and hope more people watch 12monkeys as it is best time travel show and deserves a mention.

  2. Name says:

    Honestly I haven’t seen any of the mentioned besides 12 Monkeys. Though still quite sure you can’t find such a show that easily. Anything else I try is pretty good (great even, in your face etc.) but somehow a step not good enough, such a shame. The arithmetic biology time-travel Lost is 3 levels above way too good, for a change. At least that’s how I see it, especially now in the second season. It’s like you’re doing a show and think “ok this one will be great”, but instead do like “this will be great” and “ok let’s do this even more great”, then “and this, oh, this and this”, so it gets you (hitting you) from all levels simultaneously over the episode, and by the end it’s a complete knockout on the sofa (+begging for mercy and the next ep right now). And next day you still wear bruises. Or maybe I dreamed something up. No, still theree.
    But seriously, though. Let’s be plain simple serious. Ok, nothing changed.

  3. Time travel seems to pop up like once a decade, at least, on tv, but is usually overlooked because it’s deep-genre stuff. I’m glad that this time, more people are taking notice that it’s a good story-generator, a good way to grow characters and provide tension and story choices, and that it’s rarely just a hook. Good time travel stories know this–like 12 Monkeys. They create stories that could not have existed or resolved without time travel, it’s so intrinsic to the storytelling, and all these new shows are going to have a lot to prove to live up to the skill they’ve shown! It really has raised the bar, and I agree that it needed more than a passing mention in this article!

  4. I’m loving the fact there are so many time travel shows on right now, as it’s my favourite genre. That said, I’m willing to bet a lot of them will not be that well written. Time travel is extremely hard to get right, it’s far too easy to let loopholes in and there is also the danger of the temporal mechanics overtaking the characters as the focus of the show. Outlander works well, because it is pretty simplistic with its time travel and is more about the characters, which are well done. It’s kind of time-travel “lite”!

    This is why I love 12 Monkeys so much. It gets time travel *right*, there are very few, if any, loopholes and certainly not any that couldn’t be closed at a later date or explained away quite easily. Yet at the same time the temporal mechanics is not at the expense of plot development or characters. The characters are extremely forward-looking in the sense that the women are people, not tropes, not going near any fridges and are extremely complex and realistic. They’re some of the best written women on television. Of course the men are as well, but it’s so rare to see women done right, even nowadays, although thankfully TV writers are starting to learn.

    It’s a complex show that you can’t watch whilst playing Candy Crush, but the trade-off is that you find yourself thinking about it all week between episodes. I have a horrible feeling that part of the reason ratings are low because casual viewers just don’t want that sort of television, but it’s a veritable treat for those who want something more intelligent. The other reason is because it’s just not promoted enough and not enough media outlets talk about it. This is criminal, because it is an absolutely brilliant show, and it’s the first time a show has ever moved me enough to ever comment on articles like these!

    (it goes without saying I agree with the other posts!)

  5. noelia says:

    12 monkeys is an awesome tv show and it needs to be mentioned here. Everybody should give it a chance!

  6. I don’t understand how it’s possible that you’ve published a piece about time travel on TV right now, with just a passing mention of 12 Monkeys. 12 Monkeys blows all the other shows right out of the water with its complexity, depth, intrigue, ridiculously fascinating characters (including the most interesting female characters on TV, regardless of genre). It’s also originally scripted story telling, by an amazing team including Terry Matalas and Sean Tretta (seriously, anyone even thinking of screenwriting need to learn from these guys – you’d probably want a time machine to go back and steal their ideas, because they are that good). Sorry, but unlike book adaptations, there’s no way you’ll know what’s going to happen next. Every week is mind blowingly unpredictable and packs a heavy emotional punch. Variety – you need to talk about 12 Monkeys. Why aren’t you talking more about 12 Monkeys? I’m actually a bit mad with you that you didn’t do it properly.

  7. Sharron Hather says:

    12 Monkeys is currently the best time travel an, indeed, the best sci-fi show on TV, but, unfortunately, because it’s tucked away on SyFy, home of Sharknado, nobody seems to know about it. These new shows will be hard pressed to follow in 12 Monkeys’ impressive footsteps – three-dimensional characters who aren’t always heroes of villains, amazing female characters who don’t need men to rescue them, incredible chemistry between the cast, a twisty-turny plot that actually requires the viewer to think about what they’re watching, and a show that looks absolutely stunning week in and week out.
    Criminally overlooked, the glut of time travel shows really have a hard act to follow…if only more people realised.

  8. Mike Tiefenbacher says:

    The Time Tunnel, Star Trek, It’s About Time, Quantum Leap, Time Trax, Haven and Continuum are just a few of the many other series in which time travel played a major part. The point is, this trend has been going on for much longer than the recent show cycles.

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