It may feel like we’re living in apocalyptic times, and that sense of impending doom is exactly the jumping-off point that thriller The Lazarus Project uses to fuel some of the most bingeable escapism on TV today. From Joe Barton, creator of crime drama Giri/Haji, The Lazarus Project is a surprisingly heartfelt sci-fi tale of the choice between love and duty.
The show stars Paapa Essiedu as George, a mildly successful techie and the most average of average joes, who realizes that he has been experiencing several months on a time loop, culminating in an apocalyptic pandemic. (No, it’s not COVID, although that real-world pandemic is referenced, giving the show a strong foundation in reality.) George is quickly recruited by the Lazarus Project, a secret organization beyond the government with the power to reset time to the previous July 1st every time humanity experiences an apocalyptic event. The agents of the Lazarus Project then must stop the event or minimize its effect on humanity.
George is what the agents call a “mutant,” someone who is genetically able to perceive the time loops. He is brought onboard, but after working with the Lazarus Project for several years, George witnesses his wife Sarah (Charly Clive) die in a tragic accident. He is then faced with a choice: let time play out, or intervene to reset time to a world in which his wife is still alive. The show’s action and thriller elements disguise what is actually a deeply emotional and philosophical story that invites viewers to ponder profound questions on an enormous scale.
The show is billed as a thriller, but that descriptor barely scratches the surface. There is truly something in it for every viewer. There is plenty of esoteric meat for hard sci-fi fans to sink their teeth into, but the basic premise of a time loop is something that even the most sci-fi-averse viewer can understand (thanks, Groundhog Day). Even when the twists and turns of the timelines are mind-bending to follow, the characters’ emotions are an anchor to the heart of the story. There are two ways to watch this show: either you meticulously follow the time loops and keep a running commentary of technical questions in your head, or you give yourself over to the emotional ride and stop trying to figure it out. The story is so well-paced that even if you get stuck trying to muddle through the technicalities, you’ll be swept up by the next beat of the plot almost immediately.
The team of agents at the center of The Lazarus Project is the absolute highlight of the show. Aside from George, there are three other key members of the team: Archie (Anjli Mohindra), George’s recruiter and a cynic hiding a tragic past, Shiv (Rudi Dharmalingam), a brooding loner, and Wes (Caroline Quentin), their no-nonsense boss. There are also two renegade former members of the Lazarus Project, Rebrov (Tom Burke) and Janet (Vinette Robinson) who swoop in to throw a wrench into the team’s plans. The show takes advantage of flashbacks and alternate versions of the time loops to slowly and deftly reveal the characters’ baggage and backstories. Every character is uniquely flawed, and all the more lovable for it. Mohindra, Dharmalingam, and Robinson give standout performances. Vinette Robinson in particular has been lauded for her portrayal of her character’s time loop trauma in an absolutely gut-wrenching sequence in the third episode.
The premise of this show should not work at all, and yet it works seamlessly. The plot backs itself into a corner: the world could end and be reset anytime, thus any world-ending event shouldn’t feel threatening, and any of the characters’ actions should feel low-stakes and reversible. And yet, the stakes and tension couldn’t feel higher. One of the biggest hurdles of any time loop story is how to establish the time loop without the story becoming repetitive to the viewer. The Lazarus Project doesn’t even dip its toe into monotony, thanks to a combination of sharp writing, directing, and editing.
The steady pacing and balance in tone make this the perfect show to binge-watch, and the complexities of the time loops make it entertaining to puzzle through and theorize about between weekly broadcasts. The first few episodes follow a somewhat predictable plot, especially with the introduction of renegade agent Rebrov, who presents the age-old question, are “good guys” really the “good guys”? But after the midpoint of the season, nearly all predictability goes out the window.
When an episode ends with a character holding a nuclear detonator with well over half the season left to go, it is proof that Barton is conscious of how ridiculously he’s raising the stakes, and a guarantee that he’s going to follow through. As a thriller, the show delivers expertly directed action sequences with all the car chases, shoot-outs, and explosions an action fan could want. The twist in the final episode is almost impossible to see coming, and leads to a cliffhanger ending that will leave viewers eager for Season 2.
Luckily, The Lazarus Project received a well-deserved renewal for a second season from TNT in May 2023. Season 1 premiered on June 4, 2023, airing on a weekly release schedule at 9 p.m. ET on TNT. All episodes will move to stream on Max (nee HBO Max) in August 2023.