By Anthony Casperson
In the fantasy/sci-fi/superhero shows that I usually watch, there tend to be episodes that follow certain storylines. There’s the amnesia episodes. The doppelganger episodes. The we’re-about-to-run-out-of-a-valuable-resource episodes. And don’t get me started on the musical episodes. (Seriously, don’t.)
But one that’s popped up recently in one series is the time loop episode, a.k.a. the “Groundhog Day” episode. So called, because of the similarity of this storyline with the 1993 Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. (The concept predates this film, but found its cultural foothold here.)
The storyline goes something like this: the main character(s) find themselves living the same day over and over again and only they realize it. At first, they question how this could be true. Then, they begin to take on an attitude of non-consequence (everything they do resets tomorrow anyway, so might as well have “fun”). Eventually, they begin to despair this existence. And finally, they find a way out of the time loop.
And so, when I saw a series I’m currently watching advertise an upcoming episode as a time loop episode, I thought to myself, “Wow, they’re only beginning their third season and already have run out of stories to tell.” To succumb to the tired old storylines this early in the series, doesn’t give me much faith.
Wait. Where was I going with this? Oh, yeah…
After I passed a little bit of judgement on the show runners, another thought came into my head. “What’s the fascination with time loop tales?” Why has our culture embraced the Groundhog Day story to such an extent that we have a shorthand for it?
Even if you don’t watch the same TV shows that I do, you’ve probably seen this storyline elsewhere. They especially like make it a Christmas story where the day repeating is Christmas Day.
There has to be some reason why our culture re-tells the story. There’s gotta be a meaning in the story that we forget and need to learn again…and again, and again, and again. (Though this does make me question the fact that time loops are purely fictional.)
What is the common theme in these stories? Well, the main character, the person stuck in the loop, is a selfish person who doesn’t really care about others. This is on occasion modified, such as in Stargate SG-1’s time loop episode “Window of Opportunity.” There, the selfish person was stuck in the time loop but not a main character of the series.
So, we have this selfish person stuck in a time loop. They get to do whatever they want without consequence. Their selfishness is amplified for a time, until the “fun” runs out. And when this happens they despair. They begin to realize the type of hell that they have entered.
Repeating the same exact day over and over again isn’t all that fun. No new conversations. No going away for a few days. No new experiences.
Sure, some of the people in the stories might try to learn new things while repeating everything. Bill Murray’s character learns how to play piano and even speak French. But eventually distraction won’t keep the person from feeling a sense of hopelessness. (It’s said by some of the filmmakers that Murray’s character was supposed to have spent around 10 years in this time loop. And some have even said that for everything that he did and learned, it would’ve actually had to be closer to 20-30 years.)
Okay, we have this selfish person stuck in a time loop. They begin to see the futility of living a selfish life. What happens next?
Typically, the way out, the way to stop the time loop is to act in a purely selfless way. For instance, in part of Mickey’s Once Upon A Christmas, the trio Huey, Dewey, and Louie experience the same Christmas Day over and over again until they: modify their beloved present (three sleds) from Uncle Donald into something for him, help Daisy with dinner, and sing carols around the piano with Uncle Scrooge before they escape the time loop.
It’s a story of growth. A story of a selfish person who learns to act selflessly. Acting in a selfish manner leads to misery, but acting in a selfless manner allows a person to grow and move forward. Sounds almost biblical, doesn’t it?
But I have to question that assessment.
The problem with viewing time loop tales as something almost biblical is the fact that while telling a story of our actions having consequences, it betrays those very consequences by making the learning process be non-consequential.
No one other than those stuck in the time loop knows what happened to make this selfish person become selfless. They seem to have changed overnight to everyone else. And for no real reason.
But in reality, one of the consequences of our selfishness (read, sinfulness) is that others know what we did. We can’t reset people to forget the stupidity of our sinfulness.
There’s always a consequence for our sin. Sure, for those who repent from that sin, there’s forgiveness offered by God. But even then, there was a consequence. Jesus’ sacrifice makes it possible for that forgiveness to occur. He had to go through the hell of being separated from the Father so that we who are his followers don’t have to experience it.
There are consequences for our selfishness, even when we do begin to act in selfless moments. There’s no reset in life.