For some time now, the CW has tried to turn Peyton List into one of the network’s home-grown stars, and for good reason. List, possibly best known to TV fans as Roger Sterling’s wife Jane on “Mad Men,” is an appealing presence; she provided brisk leadership on the short-lived CW sci-fi drama “The Tomorrow People,” and changed gears adroitly for her brief stint as a melodramatic villain on “The Flash.”
This time around the network has put List in “Frequency,” which unites two of the fall’s biggest drama trends: time travel and missing parents (a number of new programs showcase mothers and fathers who are a major presence in their children’s lives, before and after their deaths or disappearances). But despite strenuous efforts to bring emotional weight to this tale of a decades-spanning connection, “Frequency,” which is based on the 2000 film of the same name, cannot disguise its true identity as a fairly standard cop procedural.
The CW’s “Legends of Tomorrow” puts time-hopping at the center of its premise, and even “The Flash” has played around with altering its timeline (an alternate reality is the focus of its Oct. 4 season premiere). But unlike NBC’s “Timeless,” “Legends of Tomorrow,” or the granddaddy of time-travel serials, “Doctor Who,” “Frequency” does not give its characters a vehicle that they use in which to zip around time and space. As it was the case in the film, the device mysteriously connecting a parent and child across the years is a ham radio, which hobbyist and cop Frank Sullivan (Riley Smith) enjoyed using with his daughter, Raimy, when she was young.
Raimy (List) grew up to be an NYPD cop who is bitter about her father’s disappearance and death, and convinced that while he was working undercover on a big case, he did something terrible. Of course there’s more to the story, but to give that away would be to undermine the show’s surprises — which are never all that hard to predict, but Smith and List approach each twist with a great deal of conviction.
Once the set-up of the pilot is out of the way, however, “Frequency” appears poised to lay out a fairly standard serial-killer narrative, one that doesn’t feel like the best possible fit for the CW’s brand. The network does have stories that touch on painful topics and difficult histories, but on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Jane the Virgin,” for instance, the general tone is often one of imaginative exploration or generous bemusement. “Supernatural” long ago became the network’s genre version of a buddy-cop show (one that involves complicated relationships and the odd werewolf). And on the network’s underrated and consistently pleasing “iZombie,” which depicts police officers investigating a new death each week, the witty dialogue and compassionate intelligence allow the show to almost invariably rise above its standard weekly formula.
In the first hour of the efficient “Frequency,” however, despite the talents of the cast, which includes an underused Mekhi Phifer, the program doesn’t offer enough to set it apart from dramas loaded with similar cop-shop situations and murder-solving mechanics. The characters and relationships are never specific or resonant enough to make the attempted blending of family drama, time travel series, and cop show memorable, or, perhaps more importantly, as addictive as the several other smart hybrid programs on the CW.