Last week’s two-part premiere of “Time After Time” gently eased us into a Russian nesting doll of a show: A sweet nerdy romance, hidden inside a Jack the Ripper crime procedural, hidden inside a steampunk time travel fantasia, hidden inside a conspiracy thriller — all neatly hidden inside the supernaturally winning affect of Freddie Stroma’s wide-eyed HG Wells. This week’s necessary complications expand upon the conspiracy layer, revealing it to be its own series of puzzles…
Unlike its TV sibling “Timeless,” we’ve got more than one major conspiracy to deal with in “Time After Time”: There’s also whatever William Popp’s unnamed ballcap-wearing stalker is up to, something to do with his habit of stalking and photographing HG and John (Josh Bowman)… As well as a risky visit to his infirm mother, who knows all about the time travel and gravely warns him, “[You] can stop this all from happening.”
Slightly more complex is Vanessa (Nicole Ari Parker)’s firm belief that she’s a genetic descendant of HG, who visited her years ago in her timeline (but not yet in his), and the devotion of her massive infrastructure to assist him. Until mid-episode, her Stedman Graham-like beau Griffin (Will Chase) has been kept necessarily out of the loop… But the show doubles down on its twists when first, she reveals this truth to him and second, we (but not she) learn that Griffin has his own stakes in the HG/John situation.
And then, perhaps most tantalizing, is whatever new character Brooke (Jennifer Ferrin) is up to. Her meet-cute with Ripper John feels orchestrated, as do — in retrospect — the various red flags arising throughout their banter about the ethical repercussions of surgery. John, still under the misconception that he’s on a “Revenge”-like show featuring a weekly takedown, sees her only as a particularly interesting future murder victim, blind to the wolfish way she smiles at him. The show’s comfort and ease with its genre trappings likely has many of us right there with John, trusting that Brooke’s who she claimed to be. It’s just the third hour, after all — far too early for the premise to already reform…
And yet that’s just what this bold show does, feinting as though John will do her in until — mid-embrace — she knocks him out via a well-placed syringe. Popp’s character, dispatched midway through by one of Vanessa’s henchmen, was a red herring in terms of what we should be paying attention to. His sleuthing was clumsy and visible to both HG and John, perhaps lulling them into a sense of security that would have prohibited them from realizing that Brooke — and whoever she’s working with — are also following them, or at least John.
Because it’s the serial killer who wakes up at episode’s end: Strapped to a table in some sort of presumably underground medical facility, Brooke gazing down at him. Earlier, when his guard was down, John called her “a Goddess searching for [her] equal” — and perhaps, given her interest in neuropsychology and earlier statement that evil is sometimes okay, she’s being lined up as the “Jane” to John’s “HG.”
The near-immediate subversion of our genre expectations speak well for this show’s ambition, perhaps a hint toward a goal to do for light-paranormal procedurals what “Riverdale” has done for teen noir.
And of course, this is where it’s headed, with Kevin Williamson as showrunner: Each of his projects, from the “Scream” films to the recently-wrapped “Vampire Diaries,” has worked from his same ’90s-but-not-archaic playbook, in which genre conventions are brought out only to be immediately subverted. The 1979 film was a perfect cat-and-mouse narrative to tell in 120 minutes — to turn it into a TV show requires the “Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly” approach: Mouse focused solely on the cat, who’s too busy hunting to realize it’s about to be swallowed down by a bear, and so on.
Jane and HG engage in a nearly episode-long discussion of destiny, with HG taking the guilt-ridden side that his voyage has upended both past and future and Jane voicing her firm belief that the two of them were destined to meet — ergo, he was always meant to arrive in New York in 2017. What neither of them know, because they still think they’re in a slight update of the 1979 film, is that at least two — and possibly three — separate groups have been lying in wait for HG and John to arrive.
This arrival was preordained in some way, perhaps by the same visit that found him leaving a letter with a college-aged Vanessa — meaning that both he and John were always meant to wind up here, together. If the show is a nesting doll, we’re looking forward to the process of watching as these smaller dolls — in a sort of “Westworld” meets “The Truman Show” allegory — hacking their way through the outer levels. Finally discovering — and presumably defeating — the wider web they don’t yet know they’re caught in.
“Time After Time” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.