Groundhog Day wasn't the first time loop story. That honor seems like it belongs to "Christmas Every Day," a short story by William Dean Howells published in 1892. There were others after it, but it's safe to say that Groundhog Day unlocked the magic of the premise and inspired a generation of storytellers from all over the world to repurpose the idea to fit it in their respective genres and mediums. Movies like Happy Death Day and Live, Die, Repeat (formally Edge of Tomorrow), repurposed it for the horror and sci-fi genres, respectively. The upcoming Palm Springs starring Andy Samberg is using it in a comedy. Again.
Dozens of shows have borrowed the premise for individual episodes, from Supernatural to Fringe to two different Star Trek series. Russian Doll used it as the framework for an entire season. The idea of dying and starting over from where you left off is so inherently video game-y that you can fit the entire medium into it. The purpose of making that repetition the point of the adventure is fairly new to games. Deathloop, a soon-to-be-released game from the makers of the Dishonored series, will set time loops against the backdrop of a feud between two assassins who've been killing each other since forever.
2019's masterful Outer Wilds kills you, a scrappy alien astronaut, every 22 minutes as you explore the mysteries of your local solar system. Indy game Minit gives you only 60 seconds to figure out what to do next before you're transported back to your living room. And something called The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask fiddled with it a little.
Once considered a high concept premise, now the time loop's just another weapon in the arsenal. And it might be among our most reliable and efficient storytelling techniques. It's a perfect set up that functions as a "bottle episode" that traps characters in one moment instead of one room. Like a bottle episode, the time loop is about cutting away everything else in a character's life so they can focus on confronting their most pressing internal problems. Its appeal is in how someone who seems to be cursed has actually been granted the gift of getting to fail infinitely and safely in a vacuum until they get it right. It's as much as a wish-fulfillment fantasy as a teen sex comedy where the nerd dates the prom queen.
It's also a way to tell a cleaner, more elegant time travel story. Without the need for characters to deal with the timey-wimey baggage of paradoxes and resisting the urge to fuck their hot underage mom, they can laser focus on becoming a better version themselves. But it won't be easy, because it's not just about failure. Time loops are about confronting why we failed in the first place and then living in that failure for days or maybe centuries. In Groundhog Day, Phil's time loop forces him to face his own selfishness and unearned arrogance.
In Russian Doll, it forces Nadia to confront her long-ignored need for companionship. In Outer Wilds, it forces the scrappy nameless alien astronaut to confront the mistakes space-faring civilizations make that lead them to ruin. The time loop weaponizes mind-numbing repetition to lay bare the problems a character refuses to confront and tells them to figure it out, or they'll never see tomorrow.
Judging from how many time loop stories we've seen since Groundhog Day and how many more we've got coming down the pipeline, it's apparently a lesson we need -- and even want -- to learn again and again and again and again and again, like we're stuck in a time loop. Probably because we all know we haven't figured it out yet.
Luis can be found on Twitter and Facebook. Catch him on the "In Broad Daylight" podcast with Cracked alums Adam Tod Brown and Ian Fortey! Check out his regular contributions to Macaulay Culkin's BunnyEars.com and his "Meditation Minute" segments on the Bunny Ears podcast. Listen to the first episode on Youtube!
Top Image: Columbia Pictures