Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.
Hopper: It’s always today. Over and over, and I’m stuck in it.
Of course, there are glimmers in Day Break, created by Paul Zbyszewski (later of Lost 2009-10, exactly the point you’d have been better not to win a weekly credit on it), of something else going on. Such as Clayton Rohner’s “Surfer Dude” (previously of Murder One Season Two and The X-Files’ The Rain King), the only other person to realise the day is repeating itself, but rather too scrambled in the head to offer any sense of whys and wherefores. He’s last sighted somewhat reconstituted – no signs of that temporal lobe epilepsy – dressed in a suit with his hair slicked back (what a nightmarish personal resolution: that he should return to the world of bonds trading!) And Jonathan Banks’ Shadow Man – just on the cusp of his full-on aged-terror mode – is too portentous in the early episodes simply to be a cog in the wheel, one with his own family and concerns.
Police: Has your brother ever expressed any ideas that you’d describe as paranoid or conspiratorial?
Mostly though, the 24-meets-Groundhog Day premise does what it says on the tin, emphasising the then-still popular, season-long, extended-movie approach (24 was then entering its sixth season, while Lost was up to its third). While Zbyszweski is the credited creator, it seems producer Matthew Gross who came up with the concept: “So really it’s a cross between 24 and Groundhog Day. That’s how the concept started. I came up with this idea years ago and the idea started with what if you took the Groundhog Day concept but put it in a thriller versus a comedy”. What Gross is missing there, is that Groundhog Day isn’t just a comedy; indeed, it’s the existential side that has ensured it’s such a keeper. What Gross brings to the mix is the mechanical, nuts-and-bolts efficiency of delivering that in a TV show.
Barry Colbourn: A deal is done by those who profit from it. Not just those who make it.
Such that, “the way this series is designed in this first season is that he’s going to solve this conspiracy. He’s going to solve who’s framing him and why and heal many broken relationships along the way. And at the end of the season, it’s going to be the next day, so next season will be another day”. I didn’t realise that at the time; I assumed that, in an unlikely case of serendipity, the makers saw the writing on the wall and were allowed to compress events in order to wrap them up post haste.
Hopper: Because tomorrow you’re going to forget we even had this conversation.
The plan, as presented in an interview with writer Jeffrey Bell (veteran of The X-Files, Angel and Alias), was to show Day Break in place of Lost until that show returned (“I think the slot’s a really good time slot. If Lost fans would give it a shot, they’ll enjoy it. It’ll be something for them to play with while their first love is away“). Obviously, reality was slightly different, with it taken off air after a mere six episodes. But ironically, at a half-length scheduled series, it was near enough taking the model Lost would adopt (16 instead of 24) after its first three seasons.
Hopper: Let’s blow off the world for the day.
Unlike Lost, though, where Damon Lindelof pressed to be able to wrap things up, Gross was bullish about the series going on and on and on, little realising that The Walking Dead (or The Fugitive, or The Invaders, or indeed The X-Files) approach of pushing a show until exhaustion sets in, or audiences get tired of it, may be what networks want but it’s almost never good for story. Gross commented “So the next season, it’s going to be a different conspiracy and a different sort of insurmountable situation and the day is broken and only Brett Hopper can fix it”.
Hopper: Tell me why this is happening!
I don’t know about you, but that’s not really so very tantalising. It isn’t really a draw. And it’s one of the reasons I don’t think it was any great loss that Day Break was cancelled so unceremoniously, much as I enjoyed the ride (and revisiting it). “He will solve it this season and then next season it will be something completely different like 24”. But 24 – and I was good with it, for about five seasons – was completely the same each season.
Damien: He’s like Freddy. Kill you in your dreams.
Indeed, while he didn’t present it as a fault of the show as such, Zybszewski later recognised this when commenting on Bell’s contribution: “He was the one who was like, “I like this premise but premise can be trickery and can be easy, if it’s just about the gimmicks, or if it’s just about plot, plot, plot, plot, plot. But why do we care?” That was something that he imprinted on me, very early on in Day Break”.
Chad: Basically, the whole world, the very concept of time, revolves around Brett Hopper. Because you’re so special.
It’s very noticeable that the more Day Break treats the Groundhog Day side simply as a plot mechanism, servicing the 24, thriller aspect, and thus the more linear it becomes, the less effective it is. The show becomes almost ordinary. The way episodes – taking a leaf out of Lost’s book – focus on Taye Diggs’ Hopper solving some dilemma involving those closest to him, be it sister Jennifer (Meta Golding) – who at one point is awarded a particularly risible reveal of being coerced into shooting Adam Baldwin’s police detective Chad – or ex-druggy partner Andrea (Victoria Pratt), whose problems with later Lost cohort Nestor Carbonell are swiftly ironed out each morning from then on, or eventually girlfriend Rita (Moon Bloodgood) herself. The latter is saved for the point where it seems as if Hopper has solved the case and caught the killer, and yet there is no reset. “We’ve tried to tell a story and make room for emotional scenes” is easier said than done. There are episodes where Day Break is hewing a little too closely to Quantum Leap (or any given show based on a similar dynamic, of which there were scores during the ’80s), as Hopper angelically rights someone’s situation.
Spivak: Fine, and if you see any little green men, tell them I said “Hi”.
To be fair to the makers, Day Break has clearly planted the seeds early on, with cops Spivak (Mitch Pileggi) and Choi (Ian Anthony Dale) bringing up an important traffic incident during Rita’s interrogation. But when it comes, the simple fact of it, and her brother, is rather anticlimactic. Other incidents too, with seeming retcons or baits and switches, were also doubtless planned, but on a surface level are less than believable (Chad isn’t, then he is, and Spivak likewise – sending his partner into peril in a bar).
Hopper: You have an ugly smile. People say that about you.
Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that easily the best episodes are those where the show gets the possibilities of the premise between its teeth. The Pilot is as good an opener as could have been wished for, and the opening of the follow up (What If They Run), in which Hopper’s gunshot wound carries on into the next reset, is an effective pointer in terms of how the show will both follow the reset principle and have its own unique rules.
Doctor: No offence, but your brain. Nothing special.
Episode Five (What If They’re Stuck) is absolutely dynamite, taking the hostage situation scenario and offering Hopper a surprisingly credulous audience in Chad, who shows his wide reading (about Mobius Transformations and the Doppler Effect), while also getting in the way of his captor’s potential SWAT team designated death. Episode Seven (What If He’s Not Alone) gives Hopper Mulder’s X-Files Season Five doubt, as our hero encounters Surfer Dude, and his enthusiasm for finding a “likeminded” soul evaporates when he discovers the latter suffers from temporal lobe epilepsy. Episode Ten (What If He’s Free), meanwhile, is a breathless chase attempting to bring Dominguez (Luis Saguar) to justice, only for another reset to occur. And the follow up (What If He Walks Away), where Hopper ditches it all, doesn’t quite stick the landing, but it’s the nearest Day Break comes to Palm Springs territory.
Chad: Not many people actually outrun SWAT.
The cast are generally solid. Diggs’ biggest role – Equilibrium aside – had probably been Jackson Duper in late Ally McBeal. He hits all the necessary 24 notes, and he’s very much cast as the action man rather than the guy who’ll ruminate over his existential conundrum. Bloodgood makes for a narrow-hipped vixen, appealing but ornamental (she’d get another failed high-concept series in Journeyman the following season). Baldwin, already a twenty-year veteran of Full Metal Jacket, The X-Files, Angel and Firefly, with popular vilification still ahead for Gamergate, is the possibly the casting trump card, gleefully diving in to playing a bit of a shit (and Rita’s ex), with his “ugly smile”. Pileggi, another X-Files veteran (there are a fair few here), enjoys playing the is-he-isn’t he angle (he’d get a dream-role down-at-heel Nazi in Sons of Anarchy a few years later).
Shadow Man: Just remember. For every decision, there is a consequence.
I’ve mentioned Banks, and he’s massively intimidating, so much so that his absence is rather missed in later episodes (the character’s involvement fizzles once the show moves beyond quarries and revealing he’s a just another heavy; I’d be surprised however, if his first significant recurring TV role after this wasn’t influenced by the Shadow Man. John Getz, formerly of The Fly, plays Judge Booth. Jim Beaver was coming off Deadwood and about to appear in unfortunate fizzle John from Cincinnati; he plays solidly off expectations of decency. Ramon Rodriguez had just showed up as Omar’s unlucky boyfriend in The Wire, and makes Latin Disciples main man Damien a little too reasonable (he’s forever reluctantly helping Hopp in a tight squeeze). And then there’s Crazy Like a Fox’s John Rubenstein, as dodgy lawyer Barry Colbourn, introduced early on and then back later.
Surgeon & Club Member: He actually believes that he’s a victim of some sort of grand conspiracy, and that I’m some kind of a leader.
Bell commented “We’re all fans of noir and the way people talk — the whole kind of conspiracy, corruption, scandal, betrayal quality of the show really lends itself to that”. But in the end, Day Break’s conspiracy just isn’t that monumental. Perhaps they had one eye on bigger scandals to come. However, the show is no let down. It is what it is. It’s polished and satisfying, as long as you don’t expect anything too jaw dropping in terms of cosmic revelation. Director Rob Bowman, coming out of an unhappy love affair with features, helmed nearly half the episodes, with the likes of Bryan Spicer and Dwight H Little taking on the rest. He brought X-Files DP Bill Roe with him, so the show looks impressive. Writers Bell and Maeda had worked on The X-Files, of course. And Lost, Angel and Alias. There was strong pedigree here.
Hopper: Yesterday was today! Yesterday is today!
Nevertheless, while they’re all to be commended for mapping out a season in advance, paradoxically, they really needed to focus on the bigger picture too, even if that was just to offer hints rather than statements. Either way, Day Break stands as one of the superior time-loop tales committed to the screen.