The Lazarus Project review: Paapa Essiedu makes a sweet, upbeat everyman – but can we face another pandemic storyline?
Hands up if you don’t want to see another pandemic-related storyline ever again. If your hand’s raised, fair warning: you’ll be in for a pang of horror in the first few minutes of The Lazarus Project. On the bright side, the crisis that kicks off this plot isn’t Covid – but if the sight of masks, fevers and widespread despair turns you off, then you might be tempted to do the same to this dystopian drama. Stick with it, though, and you may find yourself drawn into a world of perfectly enjoyable, time-shifting intrigue.
For the most part, our protagonist George (Paapa Essiedu) is living a millennial dream. On 1 July 2022, he wakes up beside partner Sarah (Charly Clive) in their stylish flat, filled from floor to ceiling with plants. Causes for celebration just keep on coming: first comes a business loan approval, then comes a pregnancy announcement, and then a wintery wedding with all their friends and family in tow. It’s all smiles for now, but trouble’s coming – the spreading of the Mers-22 virus that threatens to decimate humanity. (Shudder.)
Despite the world recovering from Covid not long before, people are coughing again and the news is back to playing constant updates about the many lives lost. A pregnant Sarah starts to suffer badly from the virus, and the distressed couple wonder whether they’re going to die. It’s all so bleak and unrelenting – until, with a gasp and the crashing noise of the bin collectors outside, George wakes up again on 1 July 2022, as if none of the last few torturous months ever happened. But he knows that what he’s been through can’t be explained away as a bad dream, or deja vu. What he saw was real, and he needs answers.
The mysterious Archie (Anjli Mohindra) soon provides them, after approaching him in corny, but fantasy-genre-appropriate fashion, smirking from the shadows. The universe, she tells him, operates in time loops, and George is one of the rare few who are able to recall them, post-pandemic. But these loops aren’t accidents or random happenings; The Lazarus Project is a secret, high-stakes organisation that intentionally controls time to undo mass extinction events. Exactly how they do it remains a mystery to both George and us at home, but essentially this group of special agents work together to save us all from nuclear and chemical disasters. In fact, the reason a Covid vaccine came about in nine months, Archie claims, is because The Lazarus Project had a few goes at it. They try to solve crises naturally, but every time they’ve exhausted their options in a particular quest, they reset life to their checkpoint date: the most recent being 1 July.
Now, they’re taking on Mers, and they invite George to help. He accepts, launching himself into a new world of missions and brilliant colleagues, including wise group leader Wes (Caroline Quentin). Though a little under-explained and occasionally simplistic, The Lazarus Project has a bright concept behind it with satisfying bursts of action (think shootouts and international car chases). Essiedu is sweet enough as the upbeat, everyman hero, but time will tell if the show allows him to reach the same heights as he did in the superb I May Destroy You. With the likes of Russian Doll, The Umbrella Academy and even Doctor Who already being prominent time travel pieces in the cultural conversation, sceptics might say we’ve seen all we need to of this theme. But hey, it’s timely. And there are some gruesome surprises along the way. We’re well used to those in the real world by now. The question is, can we watch them on TV, too?