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The Occasional Pleasure of a Harsh Takedown

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I know I have a reputation as a harsh critic, but the truth is that I don’t go out of my way to write scathing reviews. Life is too short to spend it watching or reading something that you hate, much less expending energy on spelling out why it should be hated. I’d much rather write about things I loved or had mixed feelings towards. Still, sometimes a work comes along that hits just the perfect sweet spot: so terrible that you can only say bad things about it, but in a way that makes it impossible to look away. When that happens, the only thing to do is share your dismay with others. Such was the case with HBO Max’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, ex-Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat’s adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s bestselling 2003 novel, whose first season aired in May and June. I can’t remember the last time I watched a show this horrifically misguided, and happily Strange Horizons has given me space to try to capture the full extent of the show’s failure.

At this point, the reader might be forgiven for thinking that this review of The Time Traveler’s Wife is a rave. Let me hasten to correct that impression. The Time Traveler’s Wife is hilariously, deliriously bad. It’s everything that critics of the book have been complaining about for nearly twenty years, multiplied by every complaint that Moffat’s critics have leveled at him for roughly the same amount of time. And, like the show’s Henry and Clare themselves—a couple who have intimate conversations in a completely normal speaking voice while out in public, for example arguing over whether Henry has been ogling a woman on the subway while sitting right next to said woman—it’s the sort of pairing where you find yourself happy that these two toxic disaster zones have found each other, because at least they won’t impose their dysfunction on anyone else.

The true pleasure of watching The Time Traveler’s Wife lies in trying to puzzle out who is more responsible for the atrocity playing out on screen, Moffat or Niffenegger. The author, it must be said, bears a lion’s share of the blame. It’s been a while since I read the novel, so quite often while watching I would find myself staring slack-jawed at the screen before remembering that, yes, this is an accurate representation of events in a book that squatted for weeks in the upper tiers of the New York Times bestseller list. Take, for example, the fact that Clare’s best friend Charisse (Natasha Lopez) is dating, and will eventually marry, a man named Gomez (Desmin Borges), who is in love with Clare—which everyone in the foursome, including Charisse herself, is fully aware of. Or that the only person in the series to point out how depraved Henry and Clare’s situation is—Henry’s ex-girlfriend Ingrid (Chelsea Frei)—almost immediately finds herself rewarded with a prophecy of her own imminent, self-inflicted death.

Still, Moffat adds his own unique flavor to the proceedings. To the litany of difficulties inherent to Henry’s version of time travel—he can’t control when he travels, or where or when he appears, and he always appears naked—he adds the complication that Henry’s discarded dead tissue—baby teeth, nail clippings, shed blood—also time travels, occasionally showing up in his vicinity only to disappear again soon after. This seems to have been posited solely so that the season’s first episode can conclude with Henry rounding a corner and discovering (spoilers for a twenty-year-old novel that you really shouldn’t read) his own amputated feet. After which, it never comes up again.

I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it, but I’d be remiss not to point out that Strange Horizons also publishes more serious, more important work, both fiction and nonfiction. They’re a great venue for reviews of work that often isn’t covered by either the mainstream literary press or most other SFF venues. The magazine is currently running its annual fund drive. The base funding level has been reached, but there are still stretch goals that will fund special issues on Caribbean SFF, Wuxia, and childbearing. If you’re able to, please consider sending some money their way.

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