Time travel is one of the most popular TV subgenres at the moment, and the easiest way to make sense of “Making History” is to think of it as the comedy version of NBC’s “Timeless.”
The parallels are downright uncanny: In the NBC drama, as in the Fox program, there are three main characters — a white guy, a white woman and an African-American man. Both series revolve around forays made into the past via a time machine, though the one in “Making History” is far less elaborate than the spherical ship glimpsed in “Timeless.” When characters in “Making History” prepare for a jaunt into a different era, they merely lay down inside a very large gym bag that has a bunch of wires and mechanical parts loosely assembled inside it. It looks about as elaborate as a fifth-grader’s science project.
Of course, there’s no reason a network comedy should concern itself with the mechanics of sprinting through the past — it’s not really necessary to know how the device in “Making History” works in order to enjoy the program’s worldview or jokes. On those scores, however, “Making History” never quite gels. In its first four episodes, it provides some skilled actors with a couple of historical scenarios in which they make a series of mostly predictable jokes about the customs and conventions of the past. Occasionally, “Making History” makes an amusing observation, but there’s no overwhelming reason to sign up for repeated journeys with this crew.
Adam Pally, most notably a key member of the cast of the late, great “Happy Endings,” plays Dan, an unambitious facilities manager at a small college. He gets his hands on the time-travel bag and soon enlists Chris (Yassir Lester), a history professor, to help him navigate the past, which Dan knows little about. Thanks to a series of solo trips, Dan has built up some knowledge about the Massachusetts of the 1770s — when he goes there, he brings not only period-specific clothes but also hams, which, he explains to Chris, were more or less a form of currency back then. But Chris is a necessary part of the team because he knows far more than Dan about what they’ll encounter in the past.
The first couple of episodes concern Dan’s infatuation with Paul Revere’s daughter, Deborah (Leighton Meester), and the ways in which the new couple end up messing with some key historical timelines. The second pair of installments send the gang to Chicago in 1919, where they meet Al Capone. Throughout these early episodes, there’s an air of franticness that gets in the way of one of the show’s few appealing traits — its go-for-broke silliness. Pally’s deadpan reactions — when, for instance, he hands an unsuspecting person a ham — are usually a treat, but those kind of loopy, fizzy moments arrive infrequently. An effective bit of comedic commentary about how much Colonial types loved their guns is enjoyable, until that joke is leaned on a few too many times.
In these early episodes, characters shout at each other a fair bit, and skilled comic performers like Pally and Neil Casey give the material their all, but neither is used to the fullest extent of his substantial abilities. And despite the show’s contrived sense of urgency, the early installments of “Making History” don’t manage to complete their most vital task — making the audience care about Dan and Deborah’s budding relationship, or about the friendships among the core three characters. They remain characters who are forcefully smushed into the same premise, not a trio of sharply delineated people who matter to each other or the audience.
Almost every line or scene involving Deborah makes a reference to the sexism of past historical eras, which isn’t inaccurate, but the dynamic becomes dull quickly. Deborah herself rarely gets any kind of worthwhile comedic material, and her wide-eyed innocence also becomes a bit grating, given that there’s not much else to her. Dan the slacker and Chris the uptight college professor could have been a fun odd couple, but they mainly just bicker in ways that feel predictable and sometimes forced. And Dan’s characterization mostly consists of attempts to make himself seem cool by quoting or citing movies that characters from other eras wouldn’t know about.
Of course, it’s perfectly valid for “Making History” to care more about absurd scenarios and deadpan reactions than character-based comedy, but it doesn’t consistently hit its targets in those arenas. Its broad jokes — and there are a lot of them — seem more suited to an animated Fox comedy, and they do little to make the core characters seem memorable or winningly witty. Ultimately, “Making History” feels like an awkward combination of “Family Guy” and “Timeless,” and it doesn’t quite fit into either mold.