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The Time Traveler's Wife review: It's just so wrong

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On The Time Traveler's Wife, Theo James plays Henry, a librarian who keeps on vanishing, tumbling uncontrollably through the time stream. Past, present, future: Whenever he goes, he goes naked. The first time his wife meets him, young Clare (Everleigh McDonnell) is 6. From her perspective, a nude adult stranger just yells out of the wilderness, begging for clothes. She ransacks her dad's closet, and they secretly meet for years, and she never tells her parents about the mysterious visitor, nope, nope, nope. Nope. Noooooope.

To be clear, the drama (debuting Sunday on HBO) has many problems: Bad wigs, limp characterization, indifferent plotting. As grown-up Clare, Rose Leslie has to say one ridiculous thing after another. When 28-year-old Henry first meets 20-year-old Clare, she has already loved his future self for years. Much of this six-episode first season focuses on their tricky courtship, from an awkward "first date" onwards. They get to know each other's friends and families — not to mention each other's past and future selves. The intention is "romantic dramedy," the effect is quite different. In the premiere, Clare straddles the man she has known since she was 6, takes off her dress, and says: "Haven't I grown?" She continues: "And I'm not the only one." See, Henry has grown an erection, nope, nope, nope. Nyet. Nein. Non. No, in Spanish.

The Time Traveler's Wife
The Time Traveler's Wife

Macall B. Polay/HBO

Look. Is it weird for a little girl to hide a box of clothes for the naked guy who keeps visiting her? Yes. What if he's married to her older self, and he's as hot as a mythological god? Well. I dislike the current vogue for truth-shaming fantasy. Twilight is not about a 100-year-old man grooming a teenager. Big is not about a Manhattan woman seducing a 12-year-old boy. I mean, that is technically what those things are about, but magic creates its own logic. Creators shouldn't fear our frail morality. Some art should be problematic. Mustn't overthink everything, and Time Traveler's Wife doesn't anticipate much thinking at all. The show keeps putting overly helpful chyrons onscreen to remind you of peoples' ages. "Henry is 31, Clare is 6." Darren is covering his eyes. Forget everything I just said. Run, Clare, run!

Audrey Niffenegger's original novel was a 2003 bestseller. A movie arrived in 2009. I was alive in both timelines; I guess we were outcrying over different things? "My libido grew up around you," Clare tells Henry. "You're the living personification of everything I want, of everything you personally conditioned me to want." Then Clare liberates herself from her four-dimensional tormentor. Just kidding! Clare learns to love his chaos while renovating him into a nicer cad. Despite a tragic backstory which involves repeated-into-absurdity decapitation, the vibe is very Gerard-Butler-romcom: The Jerk and the Woman Who Can't Help Loving the Jerk. Henry, Clare explains, is like a river. "There's only one way to survive a river," she says. "Be a rock." Or, um, swim to shore?

"There is literally no precedent for this conversation," Henry tells Clare. He's talking to his future wife, a woman he doesn't know who knows everything about him. That precise situation occurred in a famous 2008 Doctor Who episode, written by Steven Moffat. Moffat admitted to Niffenegger's influence. Now he's the writer-producer of this series. I haven't read the book, so I don't know if he's making bad changes or foregrounding extant sleaze. Eighteen-year-old Clare flirts with older Henry: "You wouldn't buy a car without a test drive, would you?" Reader, she's the car.

The Time Traveler's Wife
The Time Traveler's Wife

Macall B. Polay/HBO HBO's 'The Time Traveler's Wife' stars Theo James and Rose Leslie

On Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, Leslie exuded a toughness that felt battle-tested despite her youth. Time Traveler's Wife devolves her to lovelorn patience. One episode explores Clare's high school trauma, but also requires Leslie to play 16 amidst a drastically inauthentic portrayal of millennial teendom. James just looks furious in a way that's supposed to be charming. By episode 3, you can draw his butt from memory. By episode 4, you'll wish the butt had a writing credit. It could only be an improvement. There are mysteries that are obvious or boring, so many portentous clues about characters' futures. Loose time travel mechanics send Henry wherever the drama is. Too many lines are greeting-card lame:

"The future is just what shows up when you're looking for something else."

"Marriage: Two people trying to be the person the other one already thinks they are."

"When it comes to falling in love, nobody has any agency. That's why they call it 'falling.'"

"Don't spoil the memory of good days with the regret that they're over."

"The trouble with revisiting your childhood is nothing is quite where you left it."

"What is grief, if not love persevering?"

Sorry, that last one is from something else. The rest are from Time Traveler's Wife, which is at least bad in a funny way. This isn't some Amazon drama stretching one episode of story into eight episodes of blah. The old age makeup is impressively heinous. Teen Henry (Brian Altemus) gets sexually experimental and you'll never unsee it. There's a running gag that Henry needs to beat people up to take their clothes. He must be a Chicago urban myth: Mr. Naked, the Pants-Snatcher. And there are actual jokes about grooming, which sound a bit defensive and successfully make the grooming allegory more explicit. The fourth episode turns on a dinnertime farce about six people, most of whom have slept together, some of whom are the same whom. (One character is played by Desmin Borges, a remarkably endearing and natural performer who needs more than best-friend roles.) It's established that every part of Henry's body travels, which means baby teeth or nail clippings poof in and out around him. Amazing visual potential; the show forgets that detail immediately. And some dialogue achieves awfulness poetry:

Henry: So, how are you doing?

Character We Just Met: AIDS.

That's funny, but The Room funny. For this to work, you'd have to believe Clare and Henry are many different selves clashing: messy twenty-somethings, dysfunctional new couple, settled marrieds, anxious olds. None of that reads, possibly because their journey feels so one-sided. Clare makes Henry a better man. He makes her... a rock in the river. James' bod does glisten, though, and it's rare these sensitive days to witness a calamity so spectacular. Nudity plus travesty give Time Traveler's Wife a unique appeal. Come for the ass. Stay for the crap. D

The HBO limited series premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

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