'Timeless': TV Review

From left: Abigail Spencer, Malcolm Barrett and Matt Lanter in 'Timeless'
A decent start to TV's Season of Time Travel.
10/3/2016

If Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan's NBC drama is supposed to be somewhat silly, old-fashioned time-travel fun, it often succeeds.

Do you ever read your Facebook feed or listen to a political debate or stumble upon a newspaper that isn't your regular outlet and wonder if it's possible that the 2016 you're living is entirely different and perhaps separate from the one being lived by your buddy from high school or a presidential candidate or an op-ed columnist? Whether you blame the internet and social media for validating both actual facts and lies-that-aren't-facts-but-that-you-can't-convince-some-people-aren't-true, or celebrate the internet and social media for democratizing reality and giving authority to arbitrary anybodies, I'm not sure any generation has ever lived so totally and simultaneously in both the sea of living history and the backwash of revisionist history.

This unprecedented commingling of actual and alt-history may be why time travel is having a moment on the small screen. I'm not claiming that time travel in fiction is a new phenomenon, but we've recently been treated to Hulu's decent 11/22/63, Syfy's take on 12 Monkeys  and The CW's dreadful Legends of Tomorrow at the same time that political candidates were being asked with total sincerity whether they would kill Baby Hitler if somehow the proper wormhole or machinery were available. This TV season will feature The CW's Frequency, ABC's Time After Time and Fox's Making History, and that's before you get to the myriad Earths now set up on The CW's The Flash, whatever's happening time-wise in The Man in the High Castle or Outlander or whatever the backstory happens to be on Tiago a Través del Tiempo, the show-within-a-show telenovela on Jane the Virgin. It's almost as if, one way or the other, we're heading toward an election that millions of people already want to go back in time to prevent and television is just setting itself up for as much wish fulfillment as possible.

Very clever, TV.

Up first for this season, unless one of the other shows takes a time machine to last week so as to get a premiere advantage, is NBC's Timeless, from creators Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke and featuring superficial similarities to Legends of Tomorrow and allegedly more than superficial similarities to the Spanish series El Misterio Del Tiempo.

Through its first two episodes, Timeless is a mixture of reasonably well-executed period thrills, thin characters, historical facts the writers gleaned from Googling, time-travel paradoxes that you probably don't want to pick at and little details I liked enough that I'll probably keep watching, even if the show's frustrations pile up quickly.

In a world of pilots that belabor exposition to the point of exhaustion, credit the Timeless opener for jumping in fast and hard. We quickly establish that Mason Industries, a company fronted by Paterson Joseph's Connor Mason, has built a time machine and a former NSA asset and wanted fugitive Garcia Flynn (Goran Visnjic) has stolen it with plans to go back and alter time in ways we're told will be bad. Fortunately, there was an original prototype time machine that still works, has room for three and Homeland Security has rounded up the only team capable of stopping Flynn.

That team includes a historian (Abigail Spencer) who knows absolutely everything about every moment in history but still lives in the shadow of her ailing mother, a Delta Force soldier (Matt Lanter, clearly relieved to be free from his CW shackles) whose exact qualifications other than "military badass" have yet to be explained and the Mason Industries engineer (Malcolm Barrett) who knows how to pilot the darned machine. They don't have data on where Flynn is going, only when, but before you can say, "Wait, please explain more why any of this is happening!" our heroes are off to 1937 to either prevent the Hindenburg disaster or prevent the prevention of the Hindenburg disaster, whichever feels relevant.

As always with time travel, there are rules, but in this case most of the rules are based on preempting complaints that start with "But wouldn't it be easier to ...?" Let's just say that paradoxes are everywhere and the best way to prevent them is for the core trio to experience famous moments in history, realize exactly how easy it is to instigate butterfly effects of various sizes and then express shock that those ripples spread wide.

Neil Marshall directed the first two Timeless episodes and the pilot is a nicely realized bit of stylized history. The recreation of the Hindenburg via CGI delivers a heightened, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow-esque vibe and sent me to YouTube to watch footage of the real thing to appreciate the effort at accuracy. The pilot is packed with little factoids about that muddy day in New Jersey that you can sense Kripke and Ryan really loved when they were doing their research and threw in no matter how clunky they make the drama. The second episode, featuring the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, only raises the Wikipedia-at-the-expense-of-momentum stakes and result in something that's too Disney Hall of Presidents to be taken seriously, but can still work as silly fun.

And I'm not sure that Timeless doesn't ideally want to be taken as silly, trivia-filled fun, meant for the young, the young at heart or those with a youthful willing suspension of disbelief. It's a matinee serial of wise-cracking soldiers shooting ahistorical guns, pretty people playing dress-up, cliffhanger act breaks and a historian who may have written the literal book on every famous day in American history. It announces its thematic intentions with broad dialogue like, "I'd think someone who loved history would want to save it," announces its comedic intentions with lines like, "This is Dr. Dre, I'm Nurse Jackie and we're from General Hospital" and its structural intentions with a pilot introduction of what theater nerds might call Chekhov's Historically Anachronistic Underwire Bra. It's goofy, it makes no sense and I was often entertained. If Timeless is meant to be taken as grounded and complex, it doesn't work, but I really don't think that it is.

Most of the things I liked most about Timeless are prefaced by "I know ... but …" as in: I know the time machines look like the CBS eye logo and don't have a practical, logical form, but I loved the beat-up, rickety, rusty craft our heroes are traveling in. And I know that Spencer's character is wretchedly introduced — "You've got a hell of a reputation — history, anthropology, you're world class" — but I love her childlike enthusiasm at getting to become part of history and I admired the way Spencer sold the emotional conundrum that comes from the tweaking of history.

And I know that it will eventually become annoying if Barrett's character doesn't become useful for more than witty reflections on how racist history was and as a race-based distraction, but I also respect the idea that the immutability of history might be fundamentally a position of white privilege. And I know that certain twists from the first two episodes are not only obvious — A potentially conspiracy involving a shadow entity is afoot? Get outta town! — but they're the exact same twists that are playing out in all of our current wave of time-travel shows, but at least one twist I was confident on has already been dodged in the early episodes, which is promising.

The year's other new time-travel shows may be going for more earnestness (Frequency), more laughs (Making History) and more ABC-style soapiness (Time After Time), so approach Timeless as throwback, somewhat in the vein of a less nuanced Quantum Leap, and it can be enjoyed. But be prepared to turn your brain on and off at random intervals and don't yank too hard at any of the plausibility strings, or I fear Timeless will unravel entirely.

Cast: Abigail Spencer, Matt Lanter, Malcolm Barrett, Goran Visnjic, Paterson Joseph, Sakina Jaffrey
Creators: Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan
Airs: Mondays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)

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