Time Traveling Bong is the time travel show we deserve
WORDS BY RADHA WAHYUWIDAYAT
Like all fiction, the time travel genre is overwhelmingly populated by white men, to the point where one would not be blamed for being unable to tell the difference between its iconic characters and a supermarket selection of white bread.
But time travel is the only genre of fiction for which I would argue that its over-representation of white men is somewhat understandable, or even justified. Most people would agree that watching anyone who is not a white man go back in time would not make for a pleasurable viewing experience.
One reason for the genre’s resemblance to a smorgasbord of white bread/men is its position within the larger genre of travel fiction, which is riddled with colonial undertones. The figure of explorer and discoverer has always been rendered on the white male, whose default privileged identity allows him to observe the world with a neutral gaze, navigating and consuming cultures wherever he goes. Time travel is no different.
Like colonial and current travel writing, time travel in film and television is often romanticised. The genre’s most iconic films, including the Back to the Future series, Midnight in Paris and the Austin Powers series presents history as a fantastical day-dream of anachronisms through the white male perspective, ignoring the social and political ills of the societies they explore.
Comedy Central’s Time Traveling Bong represents a blip in the homogeneity of the genre. Co-created and co-written by Ilana Glazer from the network’s Broad City, the much anticipated three-part series aired on April 20 (4/20). Its ridiculous premise is nothing short of what its name promised: a young female protagonist Sharee, played by Glazer, comes up against the hostile past after blazin’ it with their time-travelling device - the titular bong.
The show breaks the trope of romanticising history as Sharee and her cousin Jeff navigate some of the darkest historical periods imaginable: dinosaurs, Salem, neanderthals, slavery, the 60’s.
The comedy arises out of the hilarious and pitiful experience of watching a pair of stoners attempt to deal with a series of fucked up situations while high; the only way out being to smoke more weed.
The past is presented as a grim and brutal place filled with violence, misogyny and racism. The writers make a point of overemphasising the contrast between how Jeff and Sharee are treated by historical ‘natives’. In Salem, Sharee is accused of witchery while Jeff is given royal treatment.
As well as exploring race, gender and sexuality, the show grapples with the larger ethical implications of time travel, asking questions such as: “would you save Michael Jackson from his traumatic childhood, if it meant depriving the world of his music?”
The time travel genre is so intriguing because it allows us to experience human progress, and examine the differences and universalities between past, present and future societies. By planting characters from the present in history, we see the ways in which we are shaped by the historical periods we live in. Imagining future societies gives us a vehicle to express our existential anxieties as a species.
Putting an end to the romanticisation in time travel fiction does not mean taking all lightness and humour out of the genre. It does not mean that depictions of history must be harrowing in their realism.Time Traveling Bong proves the comedic potential of using race and gender as entry-points for exploring how time has, and will continue to, unfold. It represents a radical new way to reckon with the injustices of history through art.
Time travel fiction (like all fiction) still has considerable gains to be made in representation. But unlike other genres, writers are free from the limits of space and time. Time Traveling Bong has paved the way for a more interesting genre: not backward or forward, but circular.