Why Is TV Now So Obsessed With Time Travel?

Time travel is so popular, South Park gags are becoming actual TV shows. NBC’s Timeless, SyFy’s 12 Monkeys, The BBC’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency… heck, time travel is so popular, the CW has superheroes going through time in Legends Of Tomorrow and the time-hopping crime drama Frequency. Hitting the dial later this year are ABC’s Time After Time, an adaptation of the Nicholas Meyer’s 1970s thriller wherein a young H.G. Wells (Freddie Stroma) uses a time machine to travel to the modern era in pursuit of Jack The Ripper (Josh Bowman); and Fox’s sitcom Making History, in which Adam Pally’s nerdy computer scientist and Yassir Lester’s history professor accidentally botch the American Revolution and have to fix it.

And now ABC has approved The Crossing for a pilot, a show that io9 points out is literally a decade-old joke from South Park with Americans traveling back in time from 250 years in the future for jobs and safety. So why does peak TV love time travel so much?

To be fair, all of these shows are different animals, as Time After Time‘s showrunner Kevin Williamson noted:

Well, you know, are we No. 6? Yes. You know, when you start to develop a show, you never think someone else is developing another time travel show. And we just sort of have to look at what sets us apart, I guess, which is we have time travel as an element in the show, but it’s really conceived to be about the young H.G. Wells.

Some are comedies, some are saucy adventure stories, and still others are grim dramas. Julius Sharpe, the producer of Making History, also talked about how different the shows are from each other during the TCAs:

I don’t view it as we’re in competition with them at all. They’re doing such a different thing. A, this is a comedy. And then our show, B, is a lot more about how the time travel facilitates these relationships across time, and we’re then dealing with the relationships of Dan and Deborah, and it’s a romantic comedy about how two people who see the world differently can sort of get together, as well as make friends across time and have buddy comedy adventures across time. So we’re not dealing with, like, serious implications constantly that I think they’re dealing with.

To budget-strapped line producers and network executives across the world, there’s some practical appeal to time travel shows. It’s a lot cheaper for productions to just rent sets and costumes from another show, a practice so common set backdrops from Home Alone turn up on episodes of Friends, than it is to conceive and deliver a future from scratch. And some of it is just Hollywood and nostalgia at work: We’re in the middle of an ’80s reboot and sequel renaissance, and that was a decade defined by the rise of cyberpunk and apocalypse, from the goofy game-show insanity of The Running Man (itself based on a much more grim novel written by Stephen King) to Deckard hunting replicants in Blade Runner

Still, it’s hard not to look at the ongoing theme here of preventing, or simply running away from, a grim future. The easy thing is to wave at politics, but most of these shows were in the works, or even on the air, well before there was even a nominee, let alone an election. And it also writes off the fact that television is a larger cultural mirror; if Hollywood is depicting a rising anxiety about the future, or a desire to escape to or fix the past, it’s because we’ve been giving them money to do so, and not everybody is anxious over how America is voting.

Besides, one of the underlying themes of any time travel show is going through time to go forward, on a personal level. The fundamental message of any time travel story, as both Williamson and Sharp have noted, is that it’s about how the time traveler changes. More often than not, time travel is about a yearning to redefine the past, to change it for a better future, whether that’s to save the world or save one person.

Or it may simply be that this reflects the uncertainty that the industry itself feels as more and more scripted shows crowd the dial competing for attention and fighting not just each other, but streaming services, for cultural and marketing prominence. One can hardly fault television executives and producers for longing for the good old days. But they should take a page from their own shows: Sooner or later, you have to face the future, no matter how frightening it may be.