Timewasters—a sharp, funny 2017-2019 British series that’s now available stateside, thanks to Amazon’s free streamer IMDb TV—follows the adventures of a struggling jazz quartet after they’re suddenly transported to 1926 London. Along with the usual fish-out-of-water stuff that comes with time travel, the group must also navigate all the ignorance they encounter as Black people thrust into a realm of white people who’re just as racist as you’d expect.
Created and written (with Barunka O’Shaughnessy) by Daniel Lawrence Taylor, who also stars as high-strung trumpet player Nick, Timewasters is a comedy and a satirical one at that, so the racism is played for laughs most of the time. The white characters aren’t necessarily malicious—they’re mostly vapid high-society types—they’re just blithely unaware of how idiotic and offensive they sound. Timewasters fully acknowledge how prevalent the problem is, but Nick and his bandmates—Nick’s tomboyish sister Lauren (Adelayo Adedayo), ladies’ man Jason (Kadiff Kirwan), and the happy-go-lucky Horace (Truth Seekers’ Samson Kayo)—mostly just adopt a roll-with-it attitude; they figure they’ve landed in 1926, and being mistaken for cannibals (or being racially stereotyped, or seeing a white performer in blackface, etc.) is just part of the territory.
One of Timewasters’ biggest strengths is its clever writing; Taylor and O’Shaughnessy anticipate that their audience has seen many a time-travel tale, so they make sure to front-load the series with answers to all the “what if?” questions that’ll inevitably pop up. Racism, as we’ve mentioned, gets addressed immediately; after their time machine—“a piss-filled lift”—arrives, the first 1926 white person who spots the group reacts by screaming and running away. Timewasters is also quick to explain why the mysterious guy they all unfortunately call “Homeless Pete” (John Stoate), who’s the keeper of the elevator, doesn’t use it to go back in time and improve his present-day life. It also touches on the usual “rules” of time travel (“don’t kill anyone,” “try to blend in”), at least before the characters promptly disregard them.
Luckily for Nick and company, not everyone who encounters them flees in terror, and they soon befriend Victoria (Liz Kingsman) and Ralph (Joseph Quinn), giggly twins who hire them to play their joint birthday party and then invite them to stay in their palatial mansion. This takes care of any financial worries that might interfere with the show’s pursuit of hijinks—which are plentiful across the series’ first season. Nick almost gets sucked into a cult run by a doctor obsessed with eugenics; Jason, who sparks up a PDA-laden romance with Victoria, grows vainer by the second when he’s hired for a modeling gig; Lauren, the band’s drummer, briefly becomes both a high-rolling rich bitch and a feminist icon; and Horace, who is hilarious in every episode, gets a little too into his character when the gang plans a murder-mystery weekend at Victoria’s country estate.
Along the way, there are squabbles—especially between siblings Nick and Lauren—and some drama injected by Timewasters’ excellent secondary characters, especially Victoria’s long-suffering butler Langley (Nigel Planer of the immortal Young Ones); Rose, Lauren’s first scary superfan (Downton Abbey’s Sophie McShera); and the show’s de facto villain, 21st-century tough guy Curtis (Ted Lasso’s Kevin Garry), who pursues the band into the past intent on getting revenge on Jason, who’s slept with his fianceé, but whose path in 1926 takes its own very strange turn. Throughout Timewasters, there’s always the question of how the group—who are essentially stranded until Homeless Pete fixes the elevator and returns from his own time-stream wanderings—will get back home, or if they will at all. And, of course, we get to see them perform in their 1926 guise—ahem, as “the Wu-Tang Clan”—and see that their take on “jazz” actually consists of jazzed-up versions of songs like “Hey Ya!” and “Return of the Mack.” They’re fantastic, and make you wish the show had more room for musical numbers.
At just six episodes that run around 20 minutes each, Timewasters sorta blazes by; we don’t get to know the characters, who are painted with rather broad strokes, all that well, but the chemistry between the actors who play the band members goes a long way toward making that a very small complaint. And though the show is mostly focused on its jokes, Timewasters does have a layer of social commentary that makes you wish more series would shake up familiar sci-fi tropes by presenting them from a fresh point of view. As Deadline reminds us, ABC and Lauren Ashley Smith (A Black Lady Sketch Show) are working on a U.S. version of Timewasters, so while there are only two seasons of the British version (the second season sees the gang head to the 1950s), the show itself may well live on.
Both seasons of Timewasters are now streaming on IMDb TV.
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