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The Lazarus Project review: A slick, wrong-footing sci-fi thriller

Joe Barton’s time travel drama doesn’t follow the obvious route, and it’s all the better for it.

The Lazarus Project - Series 01 - Key Art (JPEG)
Published: Tuesday, 14th June 2022 at 12:00 pm
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A star rating of 4 out of 5.

At first glance, you might think you know what sort of show The Lazarus Project is. You might even have the vague sense you’ve watched something with a similar premise before.

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George (Paapa Essiedu) is an ordinary app developer who suddenly realises he’s reliving six months of his life – soon, he’s recruited by a mysterious organisation who turn back time every so often to prevent apocalypses, with only a few special people (including him) able to notice the redo.

Once he’s in the team, the gang (also including Anjli Mohindra and Caroline Quentin among others) work together to stop some moustache-twirling terrorists from setting off nukes and the like, using their nous and action hero skills to save the world.

It’s a little bit Spooks, a little bit Primeval and sort of redolent of US TV shows like Timeless, and it’s easy to see where the story could go next – each week George and the team will surely stop an apocalypse, with a few ongoing arcs to tie together for a big finale. Except that’s not what The Lazarus Project does.

Instead, creator Joe Barton (best known for his critically-adored, gone-too-soon crime drama Giri/Haji) invents a syndication-friendly set-up, only to sadistically prod at and unpick it over the course of the series. Somehow, the business of world-saving becomes background noise as George and other characters go through the emotional wringer in a slick, wrong-footing serialised story.

The technology at the heart of the series feels like a dream – whenever something goes apocalyptically wrong, the Lazarus team (or rather, Quentin’s enigmatic boss Wes) simply turns back time by making a phone call, returning things to where they were on the last 1st July, aka the checkpoint. If the Earth manages to make it to the next July, it resets to that date. There’s no zipping back to 1939 or dealing with other real-world issues (though COVID does get a brief nod) – it’s just like a video game save point, allowing for second (and third, and fourth) chances.

As I said, it’s a dream – but soon Barton finds the nightmare. In every episode, he pulls at the thread of what this power would actually mean for the men and women affected by it – the children unborn, the pregnancies relived, the loved ones returned and the positive milestones undone. And the temptations. If you lost someone, and had the power to bring them back, why wouldn’t you? And if you’d seen the world die over and over again, would you start to lose sight of why it should survive anyway?

It's difficult to talk about the series without spoilers (admittedly, some have appeared in trailers anyway) and the plot is better experienced fairly fresh. All I will say is, you’ll be surprised by the directions this series goes in, but all the more satisfied by the unusual ride it takes you on.

Visually, the series is also a treat – fast-paced car chases, a clash in rural Eastern Europe surrounded by bleak emptiness, and inventive montage sequences are as much a part of the storytelling as the dialogue – and despite a few awkward performances in early episodes (and an unwise accent choice from Tom Burke) the cast give it their all throughout.

Essiedu has to be singled out for a wry, everyman performance that becomes something much more raw as the series continues, without losing his likability. He feels more real than the sort of heroes we normally see in sci-fi procedurals, and even as his actions become more morally grey it’s hard not to root for him.

Regardless of how it all wraps up, The Lazarus Project is already one of the most inventive time-travel shows I’ve seen in years. If the first episode doesn’t seem like quite your thing, push on – like Giri/Haji, this show’s something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The Lazarus Project comes to Sky Max and NOW from Thursday 16th June – sign up for Sky TV here.

For more news and features, check out our dedicated Sci-Fi page or find something to watch tonight with our full TV Guide.

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