A man keeps waking up on the same morning, over and over again. Is he going mad? Is he suffering a pesky case of deja vu? Nope, he soon works out that he is somehow stuck in a time loop. Now all he has to do is work out how to escape it.
This isn’t only the plot of the 1993 romcom Groundhog Day. It’s also the jumping-off point for the new Sky Max drama The Lazarus Project. The buzzy and brilliant eight-parter – written by Joe Barton (Giri/Haji) and starring Paapa Essiedu (I May Destroy You) – follows an app developer called George whose 7am alarm keeps going off on 1 July 2019.
The only difference is that his alarm clock isn’t a radio playing Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe. He doesn’t smash it with a mallet. And there’s no weather-forecasting rodent called Punxsutawney Phil.
“Our plot is very different to Groundhog Day, but I always loved the darkness of that film,” says Barton. “I think lots of people remember it as a fun comedy, but Bill Murray tries to kill himself. There’s a great scene where he fails to recreate the timeline of a successful romantic date with Andie MacDowell. I took inspiration from-slash-stole it for a moment later in our series.”
Barton does take his Groundhog Day-esque premise in a dramatically different direction. The Lazarus Project is an all-action sci-fi thriller, complete with secret agents, high-speed chases and whizzy weaponry. Yet it’s also surprisingly romantic. It is George’s love for his pregnant wife Sarah (Charly Clive) that drives the plot. We flash back to the couple’s meet-cute at a house party and repeatedly see their relationship, and George’s life, zoom past on fast-forward: a spine-tingling and quietly devastating device, as we saw in the BBC’s underrated recent adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s bestseller Life After Life.
The Lazarus Project and Life After Life join the likes of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Russian Doll in an increasingly crowded category: time-loop TV. What’s with this sudden small-screen obsession with “timey-wimey wibbly-wobbly stuff”, as David Tennant’s Doctor put it? Is it about taking control in a chaotic world? Or wanting a second chance at life, when “undo” can be pressed and mistakes fixed? Like heroine Ursula says wistfully at the beginning of Life After Life: “They’re the two best words in the English language when you put them together: ‘What if?’”
Perhaps inevitably, the pandemic plays a part, too. For many people, lockdown often felt like one long time loop, with every day the same. Time seemed somehow illusory, bending in strange directions, as it does in speculative dramas such as The Lazarus Project. “The characters in these stories have a kind of superpower,” says Barton. “They can do whatever they want and it doesn’t matter because all their indiscretions will be forgotten. They live in a world completely free of rules and consequences. And if there’s one thing the last couple of years had lots of, it was rules and consequences. Perhaps it’s all a bit of a release.”
There is also an element of nostalgia, of yearning for past events and safe, familiar places. “I think nostalgia is hardwired into us,” says Barton. “We obsess over our personal histories and go over them constantly in our minds but can never actually access them. There’s that quote: ‘The past is a foreign country’, and we do look at it almost as a place that’s so close but impossible to reach. I think if you gave most people the chance to walk on the moon or walk through last year, they’d choose last year.” He laughs: “Well, maybe not last year, but a fun year. Whenever the last fun year was – 2014? I can’t really remember.”
Screenwriter Steven Moffat – the former Doctor Who showrunner who adapted The Time Traveler’s Wife for TV – has long been fascinated by the narrative possibilities of time loops. “They’ve appealed to me for so long, I can’t remember how it started,” says Moffat. “I love Groundhog Day and Russian Doll. There’s even something time-loopy about [Apple TV+ drama] Severance. It’s really about memory, not a time loop, but it feels like one and it’s terrific. There’s also that very good Star Trek: The Next Generation episode [1992’s Cause & Effect] when the ship keeps exploding, they get blown back in time, realise they’re in a loop and try to send the information forward to the next loop. That was a very smart story.”
They might seem trippy, but there is a familiar rhythm to time-loop plots. They start with a spooky shiver of deja vu, escalate into sheer panic, then become a mystery box puzzle. There’s amusement along the way, as viewers spot both the sameness and differences in the repeating days.
For Moffat, there is something magical yet relatable about such stories: “It’s just clever. It’s different. There’s something underlying the human brain that makes us think we actually live like that. Who knows? Maybe we do.”
Writing The Lazarus Project proved pretty brain-scrambling for Barton. “I’m very disorganised and have a pretty loose relationship with the concept of time,” he says. “I’ll often turn up to something a week early and wonder why no one else is there. Writing a show with complex time loops was a stupid idea and I cursed myself every day for doing it.”
Time loops aren’t just a TV trend. Fantasy caper film Everything Everywhere All at Once is similarly tricksy – a manic comedy remix of Marvel’s self-indulgent brain-fart Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Indeed, Hollywood has long been partial to a time loop. There has not only been Groundhog Day but the Tom Cruise blockbuster Edge of Tomorrow, hitman thriller Looper, terrorist yarn Source Code and the Andy Samberg-starring resort romcom Palm Springs.
Literature has got in on the act with Stuart Turton’s circular whodunnit The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (soon to be adapted into a Netflix series) and SJ Watson’s amnesia thriller Before I Go to Sleep. The latest example is acclaimed domestic noir Wrong Place, Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister – tagline: “Can you stop a murder after it’s already happened?” – which the author happily admits was inspired by watching Russian Doll.
Time-hops, time loops, memory tricks, multiverses … they’re all having a moment. Then they’re having it again. And they aren’t going away. Moffat admits that his next creation – Amazon chiller The Devil’s Hour, starring Peter Capaldi and Jessica Raine – has “as an element of that but I don’t want to spoil it”. The BBC’s long-awaited sequel to the John Simm cop drama Life on Mars – which happens to have the working title of Lazarus – is in the works.
Yes, you may just wake up tomorrow and find another time-loop drama on your TV. Resist the urge to wield a mallet. Embrace the madness.