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Time loop stories aren't all 'Groundhog Day' rip-offs. Time loop stories aren't all...

Here we go again: Time loop stories were around <em>long</em> before the 1993 movie <em>Groundhog Day.</em> So a friendly reminder that one person's discovery of something isn't the same as its invention.
Columbia Pictures/Getty Images
Here we go again: Time loop stories were around long before the 1993 movie Groundhog Day. So a friendly reminder that one person's discovery of something isn't the same as its invention.

What if I told you thaton Groundhog Day, I am thinking about the way we wind up in a repeating conversation about movies like Groundhog Day that reminds me of the way that, in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray keeps waking up on Groundhog Day? Would you feel like you were reading the same phrase over and over again?

Time loop stories are popular. They go like this: A character lives through some portion of their life — most often a day — and then suddenly finds themself back in time, experiencing the same events again and again. Usually, but not always, the character's struggle is to escape the time loop and proceed with a normal life, sometimes after indulging in many (many) loops to see what happens or to gain knowledge that they retain in subsequent loops.

Most recently, I saw a time loop in a Hallmark movie about Hanukkah called Round and Round. (And that was not its first Hallmark incarnation.) The idea was used well in Palm Springs with Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, and in the Happy Death Day movies, and in the great Netflix series Russian Doll. You could argue that many video games are functionally time loops as you experience them; if you die in The Last of Us, you just start over at the last save point and exactly the same things happen to you, and you try to get it right, and only then can you continue.

But the closest association a lot of people have with time loops in popular culture is with Groundhog Day. In fact, on the online index TV Tropes, they call this whole idea "the Groundhog Day loop."

Which is funny, because ... this idea didn't originate with Groundhog Day! At all! If you don't believe me, believe the Wikipedia page called "Time loop" that calls out examples going back to a Russian novel from 1915. Much later, in 1992, just about a year before Groundhog Day came out, Star Trek: The Next Generation aired an episode called "Cause and Effect," in which the crew is stuck in a loop. There's a 1973 short story called "12:01 P.M.," by Richard A. Lupoff, in which a man relives the same hour over and over.

Language will do what it does. It doesn't really matter that it goes by "the Groundhog Day loop" as a shorthand; that's reasonable and sensible, since it's familiar. But when Palm Springs came out, there were people who called it a rip-off of Groundhog Day, and that's ... unfortunate. Ascribing the invention of an idea to a specific implementation of it can misunderstand as intellectual property what is actually the natural evolution of interesting ideas. Not to overextend the focus on looping constructions, but "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" didn't invent the idea of a round, and not every round is copying it, even if the handiest way to explain a round might be to say, "You know, like 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat.'" The idea of the time loop is best understood as folk culture beyond the reach of either official copyright or ethical "rip-off" analysis.

A movie screen at Snappy Burger drive-thru in Las Vegas displays images of cast members Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell during a Groundhog Day celebration on Feb. 2, 2021.
Ethan Miller / Getty Images
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Getty Images
A movie screen at Snappy Burger drive-thru in Las Vegas displays images of cast members Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell during a Groundhog Day celebration on Feb. 2, 2021.

More important, though, one person's discovery of something isn't the same as its invention. An anecdote: I was a guest on a podcast once, let's say Podcast A, that had a format that someone immediately announced with great indignation was clearly stolen — stolen, I tell you! — from another one he listened to, Podcast B. But it turned out the one I guested on was using the format years earlier. When this was pointed out, the accuser did not conclude that he had it backwards, and in fact B stole it from A (nor did I). He shrugged and concluded that in that case, it was a coincidence. But he'd had a reflex: I have seen this concept somewhere else, so that's where it comes from, so it is stolen.

What does this have to do with recipes? I'm so glad you asked. I have my vices, and one is that I love to hate recipe comments, especially in The New York Times. The best-known category is probably the comment that says, "I didn't have any onions, so I used beets, and I didn't have any chicken so I used hot dogs, and I didn't have any lemons so I poured Fanta on it, and I have to tell you, this recipe is not good at all." But there is also a type that says something like, "You stole this from [name of chef], who published almost this exact recipe in [name of publication] two years ago."

(This is distinct from explaining, by the way, that a food you know well has been stripped of its cultural origins, which is important work.)

But nobody in the last 20 years invented any combination of, say, the 20 most common ingredients for people to have in their kitchens using the most common techniques. There's little you can do with, say, chicken, butter, salt, pepper, onions, carrots and peas in a saute pan that somebody might not decide is "stolen." In fact, there are limitations on copyright for recipes, which is a good thing, because who's going to own the copyright on scrambled eggs? Or even something more involved, like the basic structure of a spinach salad? Recipe development is often about iterating, tweaking and perfecting. The idea is rarely to claim that you have come up with something nobody has ever done before in any form in all of history.

Writing movies or TV can be the same way. The bottom line: A time loop story is sort of like a spinach salad. It's beyond ownership, beyond association with one particular version. Here's hoping we all have a good lunch and six more weeks of winter.

This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

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Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.