‘Frequency’ Pilot Recap: “You Believe in That Twilight Zone Stuff?”

Time travel seems to be a major theme this fall TV season. In addition to NBC’s ‘Timeless‘ and returning shows ‘The Flash’ and ‘Legends of Tomorrow’, the CW network felt that now would be a good time to dust off the old Dennis Quaid movie ‘Frequency’ and adapt it to series form.

This was an odd decision. Although it did pretty well on DVD back in the day, ‘Frequency‘ was not a huge box office hit when it was released in 2000 and has mostly been forgotten in the years since. Why bring it back now?

In the movie version, Jim Caviezel used a magical Ham radio to talk to his firefighter dad (Quaid) who died 30 years earlier. This was sort of a neat twist on the notion of time travel, but the story devolved into a rote thriller when father and son had to work together to chase a serial killer in both timelines.

The television show wastes no time at all setting up that premise, but changes around a few of the details. Our lead character this time is a girl, police detective Raimy Sullivan (Peyton List from ‘Mad Men’ and ‘The Flash’). Her dad, Frank, was also a cop. He was murdered 20 years earlier (which, amusingly, puts his 1996 flashback scenes just a few years before the release of the original ‘Frequency’ movie). Raimy has spent most of her life believing that her father turned dirty and abandoned their family. In fact, he was working undercover for two years before his cover was blown, leading to his death. One night, after a bolt of lightning hits its antenna, Raimy discovers that Frank’s old Ham radio in the garage is not only working again, but has the magical ability to communicate through time. She talks to a man she soon realizes is her long-dead father in the year 1996, just days before his death. Before the pilot episode’s first commercial break, the two of them figure out what’s happening and find ways to prove each other’s identities.

In the present day, Raimy investigates a case involving some recently discovered skeletal remains that are, coincidentally, also about 20-years-old. The body is identified as a nurse who used to work in the same hospital as her mother, and is believed to be the victim of a 1990s serial killer known as the “Nightingale Killer.”

Raimy tells Frank about his impending death, but he insists that he can’t just walk away from his job with nothing to show for it. As Raimy does some digging in the present, she learns that her father’s partner and commanding officer were crooked and set him up to be killed. Meanwhile, in 1996, Frank goes through with a planned bust. Just as they had originally, things go south. Frank’s cover is immediately blown, and the bad guys shoot him and leave him for dead. This time, however, he survives.

Raimy is immediately overcome with a surge of new memories about growing up with her father, who returned home after recovering from the gunshot. Actually, she remembers it both ways, the version in which he died and the version in which he lived. Sadly, Frank isn’t still alive in the present day. He died five years ago in a car accident. Still, she got to grow up knowing him.

Raimy is ecstatic at first. She changed history and exonerated her father! Unfortunately, doing so had unforeseen consequences due to the Butterfly Effect and all that. Raimy rushes to a restaurant for a planned dinner date to meet her boyfriend’s parents, but he doesn’t recognize her. They’ve never met in this new timeline. Worse, a small change to the sequence of events at the hospital means that her mother was targeted and murdered by the Nightingale Killer, not the other nurse. Raimy may have saved her dad, but at the expense of losing her mom.

Now how’s she gonna fix that?

Episode Verdict / Grade: B-

I went into this show with pretty low hopes. I’m not particularly a fan of the ‘Frequency’ movie and saw no need for a belated TV spinoff. Surprisingly, I found it to be better than I expected. I appreciate that the pilot doesn’t belabor setting up the main plot gimmick of the magic radio. It gets that out of the way really quickly, assuming that audiences either remember the movie or can get the gist of it easily. Frankly, it probably wouldn’t be a great idea to let viewers dwell on the specifics of that for too long anyway. The show moves right on before anyone can question how ridiculous it is.

The premiere was directed by Brad Anderson, who’s made a few good movies and has a solid background in TV (with one notable exception). He brings some slick production values and keeps the plot moving along efficiently. Peyton List is a very appealing heroine and the pilot episode hits a couple of really big emotional notes that still work even though you can see them coming from a ways off.

Familiarity and predictability are going to be big problems for the show, however. Whether you’ve seen the old movie or not, every beat in this plot is easily foreseen. The fact that the series is ultimately just another damned cop procedural is also a huge drag.

I’m not sure that this will be a keeper, but I’ll watch another episode to see where it goes. That’s a lot better than I assumed going in.

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