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Making History hangs out in the present for an awkward “Boyfriend Experience”

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Making History

"The Boyfriend Experience"

Season 1 , Episode 3

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Making History is in a tough spot. Time travel has suddenly become a phenomenon: Timeless, Legends of Tomorrow, Frequency, Travelers, 11.22.63, Time After Time, and Outlander have all tackled the repercussions of jaunting through time and space. One assumes, then, that it taps into something in the cultural unconscious. Since time travel is a genre of urgency and regret—wanting to go back and erase serious mistakes while being terrified to do even more harm in the face of new unknowns—perhaps the current number of them isn’t so much of a surprise.

But Making History is up against more than just that; though it takes several cues from the Bill and Ted approach (from dropping modern references in the past to closing space-time loopholes they made themselves), it’s been so broad that the early episodes were competing not so much with other time travel shows, but with other snarky takes on historical events. (It’s impossible to watch the opening two-parter of Making History, brimming with lo-fi period details from costumes to dialogue, and not think that somebody’s been watching a lot of Drunk History.) Being so decisively a comedy helps set Making History apart from its more serious competition, but it feels like the show knew it had to find its footing in a hurry. It took two episodes to wrap the Revolutionary War; in “The Boyfriend Experience,” we’re in terra incognita.

It was smart, then, for the show to take a breather for some character work. Daniel and Chris have skated by on the appeal of Adam Pally and Yassir Lester, but actual character traits have taken a backseat to the jokes. Daniel wanted to feel like a cool guy so badly he returned to the 18th-century every weekend because he could snag a girlfriend there; Chris has carried the straight-man’s burden of actually caring about the historical figures that are bound to disappoint him. But beyond that we’re in early days, and anything counts as a step forward.

Technically, “The Boyfriend Experience” succeeds, in that we get marginally more about them then before. Chris wants tenure (and if he can avoid being tainted by association with Dan, he’ll make a great one). Dan wants to not face any consequences for the gigantic string of lies he told Deborah in an attempt to be the sort of man a woman jumps through the centuries for. And Deborah...well.

The episode’s definitely a showcase for Leighton Meester, who has so far been treating the role with exactly the level of arch eyelash-fluttering it deserves, and is visibly itching to break out. Here, she perfectly splits the difference between damsel and serial killer as she adjusts to, and instantly outgrows, her new circumstances. Smartly, she gets to Sleepy Hollow her way through the present, accepting technology and social changes in gleeful stride, and already yearning for more than just Being Dan’s Girlfriend. And Dan, who hasn’t planned for that, has to contend with the fact that he lied to the woman he loved to get her, and now has nothing to offer, since his only visible ambition up to now was to fart around in the past because he’d found a woman who bought his lies. It’s not a great basis for a relationship, and Deborah’s smart enough to know it. Yon woods may be lonely, but she definitely deserves better than Dan.

Dan’s struggle to own up to his lies comes so close to being an interesting character beat—Deborah’s makeover scene felt genuinely kind and fun, and we suspect that at heart Dan really is a decent guy. However, that makes it all the more frustrating when the show veers back to sitcom staples: boy makes grand, “hilarious” gesture to win back fair lady, fair lady forgives him despite the grand gesture not addressing the problem, everything settles. (The awkward lurch toward friendship between Chris and Dan don’t quite work, either—Dan hasn’t really done much to earn friendship from Chris yet—but we at least get the sense of Chris’ loneliness when he shows up solo to trivia night. It’s a slow burn, not a plot swept under the carpet.)

This isn’t an insurmountable problem; it takes most shows a few episodes to settle. But Deborah’s smiley return to the status quo feels like a missed opportunity at a time when the show needed to start demonstrating that its ensemble was worth following. We’re still at the point where a few disparate characters exchange lines for a while, without a real sense of where the overall story might be headed or what any of the characters is reaching for (except tenure, of course; who doesn’t what that?). Whatever their next adventure is, a lot will be riding on it.

Stray observations

  • It’s definitely the tenor of this show that it can sell Deborah’s rapturous assessment: “And your neighborhood is so lovely—there isn’t even a children’s graveyard!”
  • It is also definitely the tenor of this show that we have to sit through several minutes of that Cher thing. (Chris pointing out that it’s gross does not help it feel any less stale and unnecessary.)
  • Chris canceling that Tinder date from across the bar is sublime.
  • The ‘80s-movie musical flourish during the tiny makeover montage was a nice touch.
  • Leighton Meester’s delivery and timing is selling Deborah in ways the show is lucky to have. (“There’s different kinds of smart.” “No there aren’t.”)
  • I assume they’re keeping the Revolutionary War thread going for other reasons than for lines like, “And I once saw an ocelot pubis,” but right now I can’t imagine what they are—nor, I suppose, does it matter.
  • Thanks to Katie for letting me fill in on this, the tiny squirrel piano of time-travel shows.