Lifeline Review: YouTube Red's New Sci-Fi Thriller Is Like A Black Mirror Episode From The '90s

lifeline youtube red

Television is an ever-expanding medium, with seemingly no limit to the number of places where new and exciting series are being developed. One such outlet is YouTube Red, which is making a bigger push into more noteworthy scripted dramas, and the studio's latest release is the time-traveling sci-fi thriller LIfeline. Starring Friday Night Lights vet Zach Gilford and boasting Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a producer, Lifeline is made-for-popcorn TV that feels like an elongated 1990s iteration of a Black Mirror or Twilight Zone episode, offering a fun and intriguing twist on a slightly familiar narrative.

Lifeline kicks off in a most refreshing manner, immediately taking audiences right to the simple hook for this mildly technical story set in the not-so-distant future. Zach Gilford plays Conner Hooks, a specially qualified agent for a life insurance company like no other. You see, Lifeline is a very hush-hush enterprise that showcases the insanely dependable ability to predict when its clients are going to die, 33 days in the future. And so agents like Conner are sent to the future (via a big wired-up gizmo, naturally) in order to save the clients from meeting too-soon fates.

Conner is romantically involved with a fellow agent named Haley, played by Silicon Valley's Amanda Crew, and they have quite an interesting relationship, as one might imagine. After all, Conner and Haley (and every other Lifeline agent) are jumping forward 33 days for each job they take, which means they're essentially aging at a slower pace than other people, and aren't always on the same wavelength. The thought-provoking ramifications of this are hinted at early on, but I'm hoping for expanded focus in later episodes. (Not to mention some more info on what Lifeline did before arriving at the current set-up.)

Lifeline is (seemingly) run by Veep and A Series of Unfortunate Events star Usman Ally, who straddles the line between being the nefarious head of an evil organization and the protective keeper of a priceless artifact. (Naturally, he swings more to the nefarious side, as heads of sci-fi corporations are more prone to.) Working beneath him is Lilan Bowden's Jasmine, a new recruit just learning the ropes of the business. (Though one wonders why she got the job and is immediately thrown into deep knowledge without knowing anything of the company's cloaked intentions ahead of time.)

I have to say that Lifeline wins points for wasting zero time setting things up. After the initial lay of the land is introduced, viewers watch as the always successful Conner gets entangled with a job that not only seems like it was meant to ruin him, but also one that hints at there being mysterious characters outside the central group we'd already met (which also includes 16-year-old Norah, played by The Walking Dead vet Sydney Park). And I definitely want to find out everything about all of it, even if I'm still not entirely convinced I'll be gung ho throughout the rest of the eight-episode season. Such is often the case with timey-wimey projects like this.

Beyond comparisons to sci-fi anthologies across the decades, Lifeline also shares some similarities with Minority Report -- with this show already inspiring more excitement than the poorly received TV remake of Steven Spielberg's aforementioned precrime-ridden thriller. Not to mention other timeline-hopping efforts like Looper and Quantum Leap, among others. But the fact that Lifeline only goes forward in time (33 days per jaunt) gives it something of an edge when it comes to its use of time travel, especially when the company's agents are patently unaware of anything that's happened in the world over each nearly-five-week span.

Lifeline is the creation of writers Benjamin Freiburger and Grant Wheeler, who worked together on the 2014 short film Separated. Understandably, there's more emphasis being thrown on the thriller being produced by Seven Bucks Digital Studio, which was founded by Dany Garcia and Dwayne Johnson. And yes, the always enjoyable and highly lucrative restler-turned-actor makes an appearance with a cameo that could almost serve as the series' logline.

But while there's much to enjoy about Lifeline -- and one of the most championable aspects is its half-hour runtime, which eliminates excess fluff -- it's far from spotless television, as that '90s feel also brings to mind sloppy techno-thrillers like The Net and Johnny Mnemonic. There are times when Zach Gilford's performance comes across as if the editor used the "overbearingly intense" take instead of the normal and balanced one, and several scenes start off with trite and hackneyed moments that truly seem out of place in a futuristic setting. It's moments like those that show the lack of TV experience on the creators' part, and viewers can only hope that future interactions will be portrayed more genuinely.

Despite such performance and situational setbacks, though, Lifeline is a series driven by its imaginative plot, and that's where the show could and should soar. If the thrill-inducing narrative holds steady, viewers could be in for one of the most eye-catching new sci-fi shows of 2017. If only there was some way to look ahead in our timeline, say around 33 days, in order to see what Lifeline's future looks like. Barring that, we'll just have to stream it.

Lifeline is making its big streaming debut today -- Wednesday, October 11 -- only on YouTube Red, though the first episode is available for anyone to watch for free, presumably as a way to draw in potential subscribers. To see when everything else is hitting TV and streaming in the near future, head to our fall premiere schedule.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native and an Assistant Managing Editor with a focus on TV and features. His humble origin story with CinemaBlend began all the way back in the pre-streaming era, circa 2009, as a freelancing DVD reviewer and TV recapper.  Nick leapfrogged over to the small screen to cover more and more television news and interviews, eventually taking over the section for the current era and covering topics like Yellowstone, The Walking Dead and horror. Born in Louisiana and currently living in Texas — Who Dat Nation over America’s Team all day, all night — Nick spent several years in the hospitality industry, and also worked as a 911 operator. If you ever happened to hear his music or read his comics/short stories, you have his sympathy.