Everybody loves a good Groundhog Day episode; The X-Files, Fringe, 12 Monkeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, and more have done them. But there are some television shows that took the beloved but familiar trope and did something to set their version apart. As we’re all social distancing at home, sometimes feeling like we’re stuck in our own loop, it’s good to take a step back and see how twisted things could really get in a time loop.
Here’s our list of some of the more surprising or unique takes on the time loop episode (or entire series, as is the case in a few entries). We’d love to hear which others you personally love, too, so let us know in the comments.
The Arrowverse is not one to shy away from timey-wimey nonsense, but the best example of a great DC time loop adventure belongs to Legends of Tomorrow’s third season episode, “Here I Go Again.” It was one of the first stories to center around Zari (Tala Ashe)—a relatively new member on the Waverider at the time—as she struggled with stopping an hour-long time loop that ended in the ship’s destruction.
Ultimately, the time loop was a bit of a red herring but that didn’t matter, as the real focus was on giving the audience a chance to get to know Zari (now a fan favorite) and see all her quirks, doubts, and complexities. Side note: This was also the episode where we learned Mick’s secret identity as a sci-fi erotica novelist, which was a welcome (and dare I say vital) addition.
While not taking up the full episode, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s time loop portion of season six’s “Life Serial” is a definite must-watch. Unlike most of the other entries on this list where the time loop hinges on a life-or-death scenario, this one is the most boring experience of all time.
Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is trying her (mummy) hand at a cashier job working for the Magic Shop. However, the trio of Jonathan, Warren, and Andrew have stuck her in a time loop where she keeps repeating a failed sale of a mummy hand. Most of the episode, and season six overall, is about Buffy feeling like life is passing her by while she’s stuck in the same routine. This episode took those fears and made them real. Plus, the guys actually cite classic time loop episodes of The X-Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation as inspiration.
Netflix’s Russian Doll gave us one better than a time loop episode: a time loop TV show! Starring series co-creator Natasha Lyonne, Russian Doll is about a young woman named Nadia who keeps dying in horrible ways, only to resurface at her birthday party on the same night. She sometimes manages to survive for days or weeks, other times only a few hours, but it always comes back to the same damn party. It isn’t until she comes across fellow time looper Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett) that Nadia starts putting the pieces together. Russian Doll wasn’t the first show to use the time loop as a plot device (there was ABC’s 2006 show Day Break), but I’d call it one the only show to do it right. Considering Netflix has already renewed it for another season, it seems others agree.
This was the first episode where I started to feel like Star Trek: Discovery was finding its footing. In “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson) trapped the Discovery in a time loop so he could discover the spore drive’s secrets and sell the ship to the Klingons. As most of the crew was stuck partying it up over and over again, Stamets’ (Anthony Rapp) spore drive augmentation had protected him from the time loop’s effects. We see him struggling to figure out a way to solve the crisis, while also suffering from the effects of the spore drive and time repetitions. It was a great bottle episode that showed the crew at its more fun and vulnerable, and was an excellent successor to previous Star Trek time loop episodes like The Next Generation’s “Cause and Effect.”
The most recent addition to our list, The Magicians’ “Oops!... I Did It Again” was a standout episode utilizing the trope—mainly because of how much it focused on the importance of connection. In this story, Earth was on the verge of total destruction because our heroes had accidentally destroyed the moon. Eliot and Margo, having previously doused themselves with a potion that made them immune to time magic, found themselves in the middle of a loop caused by whales (just go with it) who were trying to save the planet.
Margo was stuck having to do all the work as Eliot’s PTSD was affecting him physically and psychologically, but eventually, she lost her immunity and became part of the time loop too—leaving Eliot to confront his trauma and solve the problem by himself. It’s one thing to watch a character go through a time loop, it’s another entirely to see someone suffer as they lose the only person they could lean on during such an impossible situation.
I remember my first time playing through Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Like most other viewers, I chose to “accept” the offer shown above and market Stefan Butler’s (Fionn Whitehead) video game before it was ready, resulting in a universally panned hot mess. Then boom, I was back at the beginning of the film, getting ready to try the day all over again. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch was a fascinating time loop episode because the audience were the ones living it. We weren’t watching one or more characters suffer through an endless day, we were experiencing it ourselves. Of course, as viewers, we always had the choice of stopping the time loop by simply turning Netflix off. But the fact that we were going through a repeated day with everyone else (mostly) none-the-wiser is probably the closest we’ll ever get to an actual time loop.
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