The advantage of remaking a property like Frequency—the 2000 timeline twister in which Jim Caviezel interacts with ghost dad Dennis Quaid via super-powered ham radio—is the freedom of measured expectations. There are no diehard fans to pander to, no one so concerned about preserving their precious Frequency memories that they’d, say, throw a misogynistic tantrum about a woman playing the Jim Caviezel part. In a best-case scenario, The CW’s Frequency could only improve on the premise that drove Frequency to a No. 4 finish on Box Office Mojo’s ranking of top-grossing “Fire/Firefighter” films.
The disadvantage of remaking a property like Frequency: Practically no one remembers Frequency, a particularly rich drawback for a TV show where memory is involved.
Replacing Caviezel in the 2016 redux is Peyton List, late of Mad Men and As The World Turns—or, more relevant to the format, themes, and feel of Frequency: FlashForward, The Tomorrow People, and The Flash. List plays Raimy Sullivan, an NYPD detective who grew up thinking her dad, Frank (Riley Smith), was a dirty cop who ditched his family during an undercover assignment. Before his corpse turned up in the trunk of a submerged car, Frank was an amateur radio operator, and in death, his equipment has become an unwelcome reminder of his betrayal, a symbol of a tarnished father-daughter bond gathering dust in the family garage. But after some unsolicited repairs and a coincidental lightning strike, the channels of communication are re-opened: Over the air, across the city, bridging the divide between life and death.
It’s a silly setup treated with the utmost sincerity, the “Who put you up to this?” skepticism of Raimy and Frank’s initial contact giving way to tear-streaked pathos when an item buried in 1996 confirms that Raimy is speaking with her father in 2016. Well, she’s in 2016, he’s in 1996: This parent-child reunion is enabled by parallel timelines, the butterfly effect of Raimy’s input altering history in ways that stretch the timetable of the film to season- or series-long arcs. When it’s establishing the world of the mid-’90s with an Oasis single, Frequency surfs this divide artfully. When it’s caking old-age makeup on cast members like Smith and Devin Kelley (as Raimy’s mother, Julie), its balance wavers.
Frequency’s success won’t be determined by the integrity of its crows’ feet, but by its mysteries and the trans-decade duo that solves them. But the pilot still leaves something to be desired (and a lot of work for the episodes that follow), with so much time devoted to condensing and rehashing the events of the film. Anomalies that the Sullivans must correct are established, as is a quarry for our time detectives: The Nightingale, a serial killer with a thing for nurses. But who Raimy and Frank are and how List and Smith will play them gets backgrounded by all that plot, and the fact that they can wipe someone out of their lives with one false move makes it difficult to connect with any of the supporting players. Mending Raimy and Frank’s relationship in real time gives Frequency some emotional fortitude, but their potential to be another Veronica and Keith Mars is hampered by the timeline split.
But this show may be too solemn for Mars Investigations-level banter. Despite the behind-the-scenes presence of longtime Supernatural hand Jeremy Carver, Frequency takes more cues from the overcast Vancouver weather than any other CW genre series currently based in Hollywood North. Granted, dead and disgraced parents aren’t the most lighthearted of subjects, but the first season of The Flash dealt with them while also casting List as a criminal whose weapon of choice turns objects into solid gold. Frequency’s vintage equipment is missing its spark of life. As Raimy’s childhood friend and next door neighbor Gordo, Lenny Jacobson is on hand to provide comic relief, but his presence in the pilot is minimal.
Jacobson, along with Mekhi Phifer—who co-stars as Satch, colleague to two generations of Sullivan cops—would seem to have a larger role to play in later episodes with lighter expositional loads. And it’s not like this sort of thing can’t be salvaged for entertaining TV: Just look at last season’s one-and-done Limitless, which took a ludicrous Bradley Cooper thriller and rendered it into a weekly procedural romp. But it would take multiple doses of NZT to lift this pilot’s spirits, even as it furiously frays the fabric of space and time. If something—the father-daughter connection, the time-traveling detective work, the just-another-bit-of-history-repeating double entendre of the title—doesn’t perk up, it’s hard to imagine any timeline where this Frequency fulfills the short order of eclipsing its predecessor.
Reviews by Gwen Ihnat will run weekly.