Is ‘Hindsight’ Really 20/20? New TV Show Takes On Time Travel, ’90s Nostalgia And ‘Having It All’

CREDIT: VH1
CREDIT: VH1

Everybody knows that time travel is risky, dangerous, high-stakes sci-fi-magic. We’re all probably better off without DeLoreans, time turners and the like; it’s too easy to accidentally erase your family and/or destroy the world. But the very thing that makes time travel one of the worst superpowers to desire in real life is what makes it so attractive for storytelling: there are so many ways to make everything go awry.

Hindsight, which premiered last week on VH1, isn’t exactly a time travel story, even though it centers around a woman who does, in fact, start the pilot in 2015 and wake up in 1995. It’s more of a “what if I could do it all over again?” story, about the choices we make and if we’d actually do better with the benefit of maturity, experience, and (…wait for it) hindsight. Becca (Laura Ramsey from She’s the Man, some of Channing Tatum’s earliest, and finest, comedic work) is supposed to rise and shine on the day of her second wedding, to a secure, handsome childhood friend. But everything else about her life has not quite worked out as she hoped: she’s a glorified assistant for a tyrannical boss, she’s been estranged from her closest girlfriend for years, she is unfulfilled, disappointed, and lost. And then she passes out in an elevator and wakes up to the sweet, sweet sounds of Ace of Base. “I Saw the Sign” is blasting out of her alarm clock and, wouldn’t you know it, she’s 20 years in the past and is about to marry her first husband and embark on a marriage she already knows will self-destruct.

Hindsight uses time travel the way Buffy used vampires: as a way of getting at something more interesting and real. Even if you could do your life over again, how would know what you’d be fixing and what you’d be ruining? Is hindsight even a good thing? Isn’t there a reason we don’t know the future, or that people in stories who know the future always wind up going Cassandra-insane or wishing they hadn’t known after all? I talked to showrunner Emily Fox about what it would be like to be a 2015 woman in a 1995 world, why audiences are so nostalgic for the nineties, and how Hindsight came to be.

What was the initial idea behind Hindsight?

[It started] in the summer of 2009. The executive producers and I started talking about the notion of having an opportunity to live your life over knowing everything you know now. This universal fantasy. And we landed on the idea of building the “then” and the “now” around weddings, because getting married is one of the biggest decisions you make in your life. And the conversation had really centered around the idea of making these big life decisions. And sometimes you don’t even know what’s a big life decision until you look back on it, and you realize: that was the crossroads, the moment when everything changed.

In my twenties, dealing with guys and dating and love and heartbreak was a big part of our lives, but on the day-to-day, it was all about your friends.

So we thought, if we can bookend this fairytale, between a first and second wedding, that would be a really cool and relatable framework for people. It’s a decision that so many people make, and a lot of marriages don’t work out. So it felt like, this is something that kind of gives us a launch pad into telling a story about this one woman, and we can watch her sort of try to apply these lessons that she thinks she’s learned through her life by reliving them and doing the other thing, doing the thing she didn’t do, choosing door B instead of A. So she wakes up on the morning of her first wedding, which, we don’t dwell too much on the “how” of it, the show is really more about the “why” of it. If this is happening to me, what am I supposed to do? We don’t get into the supernatural force that is making this happen to her. Her struggle, and her quest, is really to figure out: if I am supposed to relive my life, and make different decisions, I think I know how things are going to turn out. But of course, no one has perfect knowledge. We all fantasize about “what would have happened if I’d chosen this instead of that?” And because you know what did happen, you formulate in your head this different reality. But you don’t know that.

Are there rules to the science-fiction elements of the show? Do you know how the time travel works, what she can and can’t do or change, that sort of thing?

We do. There is no flux capacitor, in the sense that, we don’t have a time machine, per se. But we definitely in the course of the first season and hopefully in the course of the series get to explore the bit of the how, and a bit of the bigger framework of the sort of alternate timelines, let’s say. And the idea too, was never about quantum leap. We’re not going to jump back and forth between time periods. She’s really just leapt through time and space and is starting over… I think the idea is that it’s just, she’s now just in a new space-time continuum that will just move forward from this point. It’s like she’s just rewinding a tape.

”Rewinding a tape.” That’s so ‘90s.

Very ‘90s! And we definitely have a framework. We have rules of the universe. But at the end of the day, that’s not really what this show is about. It’s really about female friendship, and making decisions in our life and living with the consequences. How fair is it to meddle in other people’s business, whether or not you have the benefit of hindsight? How much can you get away with in terms of trying to control other peoples live? We’re trying to explore themes that are universal. The time travel aspect is the hook, and gets us to where we go in the pilot, but through the course of the season, our real focus is on the stories and the characters and arguments and romance and trying to keep this world feeling very real and very vivid. It happens to be set in the ’90s, which is really fun, but at the end of the day, it’s really about the characters, the exploration of their world, living in their twenties, figuring it out.

The show feels to me like it’s much more about these female relationships — with her mother, and particularly her best friend — than about her relationships with men, even though the weddings are the kind of framework. Is that a fair read?

Certainly with my friends in my twenties, dealing with guys and dealing with dating and dealing with love and heartbreak was a big part of our lives, when you looked at the bigger picture, but on the day-to-day, it was all about your friends and trying to figure out who you want to be. You graduate from high school or college, and the world is laid at your feet but it’s also terrifying. And you’re alone. And your friends are, in that Wizard of Oz kind of way, the people you link arms with to walk down the yellow brick road. There’s strength in numbers. Those are the people who shape the person you become.

So for Becca, of course, her love life is front and center, and we’ve built this around the two weddings and what they represent in terms of the decision that she made, and the youthful, impulsive decision she made in her first marriage, and the more square and safe decision she made later in her life: to marry Andy. And those two decisions, to her, represent sort of the recklessness she once embraced and that didn’t really pay off — it paid off with a lot of heartbreak — and then she, in that way that people do, cowered in a corner a bit, and found something stable to hold onto. Looking back on her life, I think she feels a sense of regret and longing, partly to make those decisions knowing everything that she knows now, but also realizing that she hasn’t spoken to this wonderful friend in ten years, and she’s had jump through a lot of these hoops on her own. So she misses the friend desperately, and that’s a huge part of her why: why has she come back in time, is it really to repair this friendship?

The series isn’t overtly political, but is Becca’s behavior in this do-over stretch also informed by the political and social awareness she has in 2015 — especially what progress women have and have not made, both at home and at work — or is she really focused just on her personal experiences?

Absolutely [the former]. I think so much of what everyone is talking about struggling with, debating and arguing about in this day and age is the notion of “having it all.” And I think Becca has reached the age of 40-blah and feels like she has some of it. She doesn’t have a dazzling career, a dazzling romance, she doesn’t have children, she doesn’t have a dog. I think part of her regret was she kept walking down a road that led her where she is now, and it’s frankly a bit lonely, and lacks the gratification of a really rewarding career. So I think a huge part of what she will want to redo in her life is look at that whole picture and say, “When I was in my twenties, I didn’t think so much about having it all; I just went out every day and lived my life.” And I think that a huge part of what will influence her decisions moving forward is knowing that gratification doesn’t come from just one thing, that certainly you want to have a career that fulfills you, a relationship that fulfills you, if you desire to become a mother you want that to happen for you one way or another. The fantasy of all 40-year-old women, I think, is to go back with everything that you know and have your 23-year-old body back.

I think a lot of women in my generation feel like we were sold a bill of goods, and/or put under a tremendous amount of pressure to achieve, achieve, achieve but also be wonderful mothers and partners and great cooks, and I mean, forget it! It’s impossible.

It’s always been hard for me to answer, what would I go back and change? Because if you’re happy in your life, you don’t want to change anything… But I do think Becca is going to be thinking a lot about what truly is important. I feel like I turned 40 and a light switch went on and I realized, it’s really just about being with your family, being with your friends, feeding your soul. For a lot of people, their job does that, or their family, and a lot of people try to do both as best as they can. But she will have the benefit of some maturity and some perspective. And we have an episode down the road where she sort of advises Lolly, “maybe you should try and spend a little more time with your dad,” knowing that that relationship had sort of faltered in the future, that kind of thing. The thing you would go back and do over, you might say, “I should have focused more on that.”

How much of Becca’s character is informed by who you are?

I guess all of her! She’s her own distinct person, and obviously when we cast the part, she started really coming into focus for me. She’s a bit more neurotic and she’s very hard on herself. I guess we all are, but she’s particularly hard on herself. And she’s grappling, at least at the top of the pilot, with a fair amount of disappointment, and how her life has turned out. And it’s brought into focus with her overhearing her mom [editor’s note: played by Donna Murphy, who you may recognize from one of the best dance movies of our time, Center Stage] and cousin talking about her in the bathroom, talking about how they’re both a little disappointed, in a benign way, in how her life has turned out. They think she’s settling down, but all Becca hears is the word “settling.”

She is in many ways a composite of a lot of people that I know, and is a spokesperson for a lot of children born in the ’70s, raised in the ’80s, came of age in the ’90s. I think we were all told “you can have it all” but at the same time, told, “at great personal sacrifice.” I think a lot of women in my generation feel like we were sold a bill of goods, and/or put under a tremendous amount of pressure to achieve, achieve, achieve but also be wonderful mothers and partners and great cooks, and I mean, forget it! It’s impossible. And yet we still all strive for it. She’s one of a constellation of types of women that I think we all know, who feel like, “okay, I’ve done this and this and this,” and everyone around you says, “what about that and that and that?” And you kind of want to blow your brains out! You think, “I can’t satisfy anyone, I certainly can’t satisfy myself, what have I done?” I think a lot of what Becca will grapple with is: do I make decisions that I think will please other people, or what’s right for me, and have I lost what’s right for myself? And that question is, I think, something that haunts all women of our generation.

CREDIT: VH1
CREDIT: VH1

It makes sense that this show is about a woman in part because it feels like women question our big choices — work, family, marriage — more than men, and that women are questioned more about those decisions than men are. That the temptation to get a do-over must be stronger in women than in men. I could be biased, though! Do you think that, too? What would a guy do with the opportunity to time travel?

Literally all they would do is bet on football games. Any time you talk to a guy about time travel, it’s like, they say they’d bet on the Super Bowl. Becca would not even KNOW about the Super Bowl. I would be useless as a time traveler, in terms of get rich quick. But I think Becca understands, innately, when you have the opportunity to go back in time, get rich quick is the worst idea. We’ve all seen the second Back to the Future.

Why do you think modern audiences are so drawn to the ‘90s? We’re in this big ’90s nostalgia kick — at least, it feels that way on the internet — and is it just because the generation that’s producing all this content is one that grew up in the ’90s, or is there more to it than that?

I look back on the ’90s as this antediluvian Garden of Eden. It was such a go-go decade. Everything about the 90s just felt so optimistic. And I know it wasn’t. I know it was still a time fraught with trouble in the world, but to me, it just feels so glowy and shiny in my memory, a time of great freedom and liberty and optimism. It was such a boom decade, the economy was thriving. It did feel like a time in our lives when there was a certain innocence and purity. I think everyone looking back 20 years, they think there was a time of innocence. In the ’90s, we all said that about the ’70s, “We would have LOVED to go to studio 54,” and our parents are like “No, the 70s were a nightmare! Crime, poverty, awful.” But of course we look back on it starry-eyed.

I look back on the ’90s as this antediluvian Garden of Eden. It was such a go-go decade.

And I think there’s a certain perspective you gain as time goes on. The decade takes shape. It has to be far enough back in your rearview mirror for it to be a thing: you can see the fashion for what it was, the music for what it was, the culture, the movies that came out: it starts to take shape as you look over your shoulder and consider it and get farther and farther away from it. I think we’re still not going to know what the aughts were like until ten years from now… [For Hindsight], we landed on the ’90s almost by accident, because we were trying to find a point in time for her to go back to that made sense in terms of the arithmetic, and the ’90s kind of grew up around that. Originally, it was really about this character and her quest, and the stumbling blocks she encounters, and imperfect knowledge,. As we built the world and started thinking about the series, we realized the opportunity that we had to capitalize on this kind of beautiful mess of a decade and we realized too, how fun it was to write stories where there were no iPhones. Where if you were late to meet someone, you were just late.

Talk about the ’90s music and the fashion of the show. How do you dole out the references to the fact that Becca is from the future and can wink at the past, like the joke in the pilot about how “Patrick Dempsey is hot now,” without overdoing it?

The music, we try to be really faithful to what people listened to then. It’s not limited to 1995. In 1995, we were listening to stuff from 1985 to 1995. So we try to pick and choose music that we think sounds right for moment. In terms of the references, we’re trying to use a light touch, because it’s not really a show about time travel, and it’s not really a sitcom. We acknowledge her EXTREME iPhone withdrawal, which all of us would go through if we were separated from our phones for an hour, and she knows she’s not getting It back for ten years. We want to be sly and fun about it but not bonk people over the head. They do that on Mad Men, with the pregnant lady drinking and smoking, a little wink to the audience.

We gave a great deal of thought to: what computer would this college student own? What does the packaging look like on these crackers? We haven’t been extraordinarily neurotic about that, but it has been really fun. And our head of wardrobe went to find the real vintage clothes. We had to find the real stuff, because the proportions were different. Now it’s very wink-wink, look at this flowery dress, but it needs a slightly different cut to be authentic.

Can you talk a bit about your professional trajectory? How did you get into television?

I’ve been a television writer for probably ten years, but mostly have written pilots. A lot of us write pilots every year that rest in the great pilot warehouse in the sky. You create a world and these characters and you set up all of these problems and dilemmas and twists and turns, and the beauty of writing a pilot is, you don’t have to tie anything up. You do the opposite. You leave it in shambles. It’s so different from writing features. So I got my start in features and segued into writing television, because it felt exciting, like this was where it was at. I’d worked on a number of pilots, and a lot of them had languished on the shelf, including this one. Vh1 bought this in winter of 2012 and said they wanted to redevelop, and that’s the fairy tale! So exciting, it never happens that someone picks it up and says, “hey, I love this! Let’s do it at our network.” To me, this feels like the phoenix rising from the ashes. This show I loved so dearly and worked on so hard, more so than anything else I’d written, so personal, because it was so inspired by my own life and world and personal history. Apart from the time travel device, everything else in it is sort of true. And it felt like, oh my God, we’re going to have a chance.

I almost don’t want to ask this question, because I want us to be at a place where this question is no longer relevant. But I don’t think we’re there yet, so: how do you feel about the state of women in the entertainment industry? Have you ever experienced sexism at work, or been the only woman in the room?

Not really on a macro level. I suppose, as a woman, I think a lot of us are people-pleasers, and we’re diplomats, let’s say. I know that’s a skill I’m proud to have. I’ve never felt marginalized because I’m a woman, I’ve never felt like it’s a boys club and I can’t elbow my way in. One of the nice things of being involved in this show is, our network execs are all women, one of our executive producers is a woman; I feel like there’s a lot of female leadership. If anything, it’s a girls club, and we might welcome a boy or two. But of course, the show is female driven, the cast has the girls at the top. Honestly, in the context of this project, it really hasn’t even entered my mind.

In terms of the firmament of being a woman in Hollywood or working in television, honestly, I think this is the best place in the world to be. I am married with two children, and I’m trying to keep it all in balance, and that’s a challenge, as it is for any woman who works… But I think it’s shifting and changing. My favorite shows on TV are Orange is the New Black, Girls, and anything Shonda Rhimes does. I get it, I see that in general, statistically, there’s an imbalance. And I’m doing my part to correct that. All I can do is work. All I can do is stay focused on the work and do the absolute best job I can. Because yes, of course, we want to change it from within, and I’m going to mentor every female writer I can find, and do my small part. But I do feel I’ve been very fortunate. This is a golden age in television and for women in television. I hope that the trend continues and that more women are drawn to working in television, that more women feel welcomed and valued and that their work is getting the attention they deserve.

Hindsight airs at 10 p.m. on Wednesdays