The Time Traveler's Wife S01E04: Moffat Remakes His Sitcom Coupling
HBO's The Time Traveler's Wife is an odd beast (just check out social media when a new episode is airing). It may be the adaptation of a bestselling novel, but showrunner Steven Moffat has been revisiting his greatest hits. Audrey Niffenegger's bestselling novel was supposed to be a romantic tragedy about a love story out of synch. It's been a huge influence on Moffat and he riffed on it throughout his run on Doctor Who.
The fourth episode of The Time Traveler's Wife turned out to be an unexpected remake of the pilot of Moffat's hit 2000 sitcom Coupling. That show was the one that put Moffat on the map as a hot showrunner before he became the showrunner of Doctor Who a few years later. It ran for 4 series and featured a group of friends whose acquaintance came from having slept together, with the main two being the first in the group to make their relationship official, sending a ripple effect through the group, with one of their exes angry and trying to get him back, and two others falling in love. The series established Moffat's penchant for rapid screwball comedy banter and clever plotting, which he would carry over with more ambition in Doctor Who later.
The Time Traveler's Wife Episode 4 replicates the plot of the first episode of Coupling. There's a dinner party where several of the party members meet for the first time and realise they've all slept together. Here, Clare (Rose Leslie) has slept with her friend Gomez (Desmin Borges) and her roommate Charisse (Natasha Lopez). Gomez is in love with Clare while in a relationship with Charisse. The 28-year-old Henry shows up as a guest and they're interrupted by the 41-year-old Henry, who has fallen through time again and ended up here. The younger Henry (Theo James in an awful wig) doesn't know that Clare had sex with the older Henry (also Theo James but with a proper haircut) when she was 18 and has been carrying a torch for him ever since. Then the younger Henry's ex Ingid (Chelsea Frei) shows up, angry that he's recently cheated on her with Clare and is breaking up with her. It comes off like a classic stage farce but is actually horribly unfunny.
The story takes a tragic turn when Ingrid realizes that from the mournful way the older Henry keeps looking at her, she's going to die. She would end up committing suicide shortly after this dinner party. She bids a tearful goodbye to the older Henry before he blinks out of time, back to the future where he's reunited with the older Clare that he had since married. Chelsea Frei's performance here is heartbreaking and the only one that achieves its intended emotional effect for the audience.
It's uncanny how much this episode of The Time Traveler's Wife resembles Coupling. Moffat's rapid-fire screwball comedy banter drives the story like a theatrical farce, except it throws the creepiness of the story into sharp focus and all of these characters come off as terrible people. They also call to mind the characters from Coupling. Clare (Rose Leslie) is like a meaner version of Susan (Sarah Alexander). Gomez comes off like sex-crazed Jeff (Richard Coyle) with his crass, tactless way with words but is an even bigger jerk than Jeff was. Both young Henry and older Henry display a deeply unappealing smugness as they observe the chaos of the dinner party, alternately coming off like Coupling's Jack Taylor (Jack Davenport) or the smugly sex-obsessed Patrick (Ben Miles), alternately bewildered and the sanest guy in the room by default when he's actually responsible for the whole chain of chaos that led them all to this dinner party. Ingrid is angry, emotionally unstable, and surprisingly clear-eyed, a more tragic version of Jack's ex Jane (Gina Bellman), the most openly sociopathic of the cast of Coupling. Only Clare's roommate Charisse comes off as a complete nonentity here, sleeping with Clare only because Moffat's script called for it.
It's not a good look for either The Time Traveler's Wife or Coupling here. All the characters of both shows come off as sociopaths, with the form much creepier. It also shows how badly Coupling has aged. Henry and Clare's relationship is a closed-loop – she's known him since she was 6 years old when his older self falls back in time regularly into her family garden. He becomes the one man she pines for her entire life before she finally marries him. He admits that he's inadvertently groomed her, which has always been the creepiest aspect of the story. They both come off as dislikable sociopaths, not romantic heroes. That's the shadow hanging over the show that keeps it from being the poignant romance that HBO and Moffat seem to think the show is. Henry and Clare are supposed to be in love, but she has no real agency or choice in the matter, locked into a deeply dysfunctional relationship all her life from which she has no alternative. That Henry has groomed Clare since her childhood to become his wife is a horror story.
The Time Traveler's Wife is not a story about true love and the effort it takes to maintain it, it's about marriage as a hellish trap of pain and perpetual loss.