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The Time Traveler’s Wife Reviews Are In, And Critics Agree The HBO Series Has A Big Problem

Theo James as Henry DeTamble in The Time Traveler's Wife on HBO.
(Image credit: HBO)

The novel The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger swept readers away in 2003, and inspired the well-received 2009 feature adaptation starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana. Steven Moffat, the famed showrunner behind Doctor Who and Sherlock, has now adapted the best-selling story as a series for HBO, which premieres Sunday, May 15. Critics had the opportunity to screen the six-episode series, and there was an aspect to the plot that they really couldn’t look past in what could be one of the most awkward releases of any TV show debuting in 2022.

Rose Leslie and Theo James star respectively as Clare Abshire and Henry DeTamble, a couple whose relationship is complicated by Henry’s uncontrollable time-traveling disorder, which sends him bouncing around and appearing at different ages in Clare’s life, which is set on its linear timeline path. The issue that many critics can't seem to look beyond revolves around Henry’s tendency to pop into Clare’s life as a naked adult man when Clare is still a child. The reviews call this aspect of the show everything from creepy to straight-up grooming, and all seem to agree that it’s really not okay as a plot device, especially one that repeats itself. With that opinion as a guiding light, let's dive a little deeper into the other problems that reviewers had.

Darren Franich of EW grades the series a D, saying the concept is just so wrong, and the lack of chemistry between the actors makes things weirder, especially when there are actual jokes about grooming on display. This critic says the toughness that Rose Leslie exuded in Game of Thrones and other projects gives way to lovelorn patience here, and Theo James just looks mad:

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.

Angie Han of THR says two adaptations of this novel are more than enough, and it’s time to break up with this story. While this review says the man-befriending-little girl story makes sense within the confines of this plot, it’s a big ask of the audience right off the bat:

But even with that mitigating context, it’s not exactly comfortable to watch a 20-year-old Clare breathlessly explain to 28-year-old Henry when their timelines finally converge that her entire libido has been formed around him and ‘everything you, personally, have conditioned me to want.’ And no, acknowledging the awkwardness with an offhanded ‘grooming’ joke when Clare is 6 doesn’t make it not awkward.

Linda Holmes of NPR says The Time Traveler’s Wife has appeal in Rose Leslie and Theo James’ “perfectly workable” chemistry, but this plotline might simply be better on the page than on the screen:

It's hard to imagine what one would do to make this more palatable – whether it would work better if it were weepier, or if it were darker, or if it were shorter or longer. It may be that just as monsters are often more frightening in a book than they can possibly be when they are made physically real, the slippery notion of a man from the future telling a very young woman he's her future husband is more squirm-inducing when you actually see it than it might be in the abstract.

Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times rates the series 1.5 out of 4 stars, saying the series left him flummoxed, as it is “oozing with creepiness” and fails to produce the intended rom-com humor. Roeper's review also points out that multiple Henrys can exist in one timeline, making for some ridiculous set-ups:

‘It’s complicated,’ Henry and Clare say more than once, and it’s also problematic. When Henry is 35 and Clare is 12, and they’re hanging out and playing checkers in the field, it’s a lot more weird than charming, especially after Henry lets it slip that they’ll be married someday.

Carla Meyer of the San Francisco Chronicle goes so far as to say this series should not have been made at all. As pointed out by other critics, the jokes about grooming just prove that the creative team already knew what they were crafting, and they did it anyway:

This show’s ever-present exploitative feel culminates in its creepy portrayal of the adult Henry’s relationship to Clare as a child. Henry goes back in time to befriend the girl, and by all appearances, groom her into falling in love with him. This plot point might have something to do with maintaining a timeline. But it plays as narcissism accented by strong suggestions of predation. This premise was gross in 2003 when Niffenegger wrote the book. In 2022, post-#MeToo and the Jeffrey Epstein and Woody Allen scandals, when everyone knows better, a show hinging on an adult meeting with a child in secret in the woods (Everleigh McDonell and Caitlin Shorey play young Clare) should not have been made.

If you’re a huge fan of the book or the movie, you might be more willing to forgive the problems critics had with the story. For those who do indeed plan to check out this series, The Time Traveler’s Wife premieres at 9 p.m. ET Sunday, May 15, on HBO and is available for streaming with an HBO Max subscription. Signing up will also grant you access to a number of great shows on HBO Max

Mom of two and hard-core '90s kid. Unprovoked, will quote Friends in any situation. Can usually be found rewatching The West Wing instead of doing anything productive.