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Making History has a great cast and a duffel bag time machine. So why isn’t it funny?

Hint: It has the wrong protagonist.

Making History
Who hasn’t had fun with a duffel bag time machine?
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Making History, Fox’s new, gently wacky time travel comedy, has plenty going for it.

Its cast includes funny actors both well-known (Adam Pally of Happy Endings! Leighton Meester of Gossip Girl!) and largely unknown (Yassir Lester). It’s built around a potentially fun, if gimmicky, premise involving a time machine in a duffel bag (yep).

And it boasts the involvement of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the red-hot directors behind everything from The Lego Movie to the incredibly stylish pilot of The Last Man on Earth. (They’re just producing here, turning the director’s chair over to Napoleon Dynamites Jared Hess.)

Yet Making History never gets out of first gear. There’s a bunch of busy silliness that’s supposed to look like comedy, but the show is only fitfully funny. It always feels like it’s running everywhere without ever stopping to catch a breath, and it eventually becomes a little exhausting.

It also has the wrong protagonist.

Making History has three characters. Can you guess which one is the lead?

Making History
This horse stars too.

Which of the following three characters do you think is at the center of Making History?

  • A history professor who has longed to see the past but must stop his/her time travel companions from mucking up American history.
  • A dolt who lucks into a time machine his/her father built and then travels wantonly into the past without regard for what actually happened in history.
  • Someone who grew up in the 1700s and then, thanks to his/her romantic relationship with one of the other two, moves to the present, where he/she must learn our ways.

Yeah, it’s that middle one — the dolt. “Stupid person in over their head who just keeps making things worse” is a reliable comedic type for a reason, and as Dan, Pally is very good at playing a big dumb dummy who nevertheless finds a time machine.

The problem is that essentially all of Making History’s story rests with the other two characters, who both have far more engaging arcs. Let’s start with Meester, who plays Deborah Revere — as in the daughter of Paul. As a woman in the 1700s, she’s frustrated by her lack of social advancement opportunities. So she gloms onto Dan when he shows up in her century, because he at least treats her like a human being and not the help.

But once she moves to the present, Making History is forced to keep coming up with weird ideas for why she doesn’t, say, leave Dan’s house, because the series knows that the instant it follows her out into the open, that’s where the story is. If Dan is going to remain the protagonist, Making History has to keep constraining Deborah, which is too bad given Meester’s totally game performance. (It also doesn’t make much sense that she’s so unquestioningly in love with Dan, but presumably the show is going somewhere with that.)

Finally, Chris (Lester) is a black history professor who’s traveling back into periods of American history where he’s rarely seen as a human being with rights and agency. And yet he’s the smartest of the trio, the only one who can set things right when Dan accidentally prevents the American Revolution, and the one with the most excitement and wonder at seeing the past.

In short, Making History is supposed to revolve around the character with the least at stake, which isn’t terribly interesting, and in every episode it has to find ways to get around that problem. Pally’s a very funny guy, and Dan would make a fine supporting character. But as written, he’s not dynamic enough to carry the show.

Making History debuts on Fox Sunday, March 5, at 8:30 pm Eastern.

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