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TNT’s The Lazarus Project Uses Suspense Trapping to Ask Smart Questions

TNT’s British import “The Lazarus Project” is a strong and smart network thriller. It has it all—a thoughtful exploration of moral questions, time traveling (of sorts), and plenty of suspense.

The show follows George (Paapa Essiedu), who is happily coupled with Sarah (Charly Clive) and about to get a life-changing business loan for his market-predicting app. Then another pandemic comes around, and the world ends. He wakes up six months in the past and has to do it again. The second time is worse, and it’s not until the third time that he figures out what’s going on.

It turns out that a group calling themselves the Lazarus Project has been keeping humanity afloat by jumping the whole world back in time whenever natural events or human actions threaten a “mass extinction event,” to use their language. And while most people don’t remember the alternate timelines, George has somehow woken up to them. He’s a “mutant,” and he joins the group of time-traveling world savers rather than be alone in the crazy-making do-overs.

As George goes deeper into the secret society of the Project, Essiedu works well as an everyman, both skeptical and excited. It’s noteworthy to see a Black man in this part, a hero and a human, a flawed character we empathize with. The show doesn’t remark on his race in the four episodes available for critics to screen, while it does note others’, demonstrating that it knows what it’s doing. And “The Lazarus Project” keeps pushing, allowing Essiedu to flex his acting chops, sometimes comedic and at others heart-wrenching.

George is put through these paces by a set of arbitrary rules that the show doesn’t explain, even though they determine everyone’s fate. George does ask how it works, but his guide and time-traveling mentor Archie (Anjli Mohindra) brushes aside his query (and that of the audience) by saying you’d need to understand quantum physics for the answer to make sense. The basic gist is that they have a checkpoint of July 1st that they reset to if things go bad. Make it to the next July, and that year is locked.

And reset they do. “The Lazarus Project” offers up a pretty grim view of humanity in which we, as a group, regularly do ourselves in (thanks, nuclear weapons), and it takes the extraordinary actions of a few rogue heroes to keep that from happening again and again. 

While all this sounds noble, it gets thorny for those who do remember the time resets. What if they get pregnant? Give birth? Lose a loved one? How do they balance their personal needs with humanity’s? And if most don’t remember, why can’t they hit the reset button when needed?

As such, “The Lazarus Project” sets up various moral questions and explores them thoughtfully. The lack of explanation about how it works saves the audience tedious explanations but creates some holes. Why can’t they change the reset date if it’s causing their small team undue suffering? We don’t know!

Ignoring these questions, the story speeds with an action-packed pace and strong suspense sequences. “The Lazarus Project” delivers on edge-of-your-seat shoot-outs, even knowing that the characters may get a second chance if needed. The show cleverly winks itself, citing video games as a way to understand what’s going on (the Project’s checkpoint is akin to where you save your progress between levels). It’s a familiar frame that lets the action and deaths work each time—maybe this will be the final version of events. Maybe it won’t. We don’t know until after it happens.

With its resetting, save-the-world conflicts, it may seem that “The Lazarus Project” is ripe for a disaster-of-the-week format, but writer Joe Barton thankfully avoids that, instead building a smarter show that layers upon itself. Yes, we see the adventures and antics necessary to stop the catastrophes, but we also engage in a different retelling, a story of the judgments the Project makes as an organization.

As various characters debate who are the good guys in this story, the Project’s moral footing gets less clear. This isn’t a show of saviors and save-ees, but rather a show about humanity’s right to exist at all. What is worth saving? If it’s not your loved ones, then what else is there? “The Lazarus Project” excels with these questions, surpassing its genre with compelling insight that keeps its plot humming.

Four episodes were screened for review. "The Lazarus Project" premieres on TNT on June 4th. 

Cristina Escobar

Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of LatinaMedia.Co, a digital publication uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media.

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