THIS PREVIEW IS SPOILER-FREE
From Eric Kripke (“Revolution,” “Supernatural”), Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”) and the producers of “The Blacklist” comes this thrilling action-adventure series in which a mysterious criminal steals a secret state-of-the-art time machine, intent on destroying America as we know it by changing the past. Our only hope is an unexpected team: a scientist, a soldier and a history professor who use the machine’s prototype to travel back in time to critical events. While they must make every effort not to affect the past themselves, they must also stay one step ahead of this dangerous fugitive. Can this handpicked team uncover the mystery behind it all and end his destruction before it’s too late?
We’re two weeks in, at this point, and while the show has yet to quite live up to the enthusiasm that the previews stoked in me, I’m still happy to report it’s a fun ride. Certainly good fare for time-travel lovers and history buffs—that is, assuming you’re the kind of history buff who likes to play with history and have a little creative license. If you’re like most of my college professors, then you take yourself way too seriously and won’t enjoy this show at all. My curse is that I’m somewhere between an academic historian and an average Nielsen TV viewer, so I’m coming off these first two weeks with some mixed emotions. You should certainly watch it, and judge for yourself.
What’s Distracting for Me…
- Speech/language problems. If you’re a regular reader of mine, you already know this pet peeve, so I’m just going go get it out of the way right off the bat. People do not speak the same way now as they did in the past, even when they’re theoretically speaking “the same language.” Now in Timeless, this issue isn’t nearly as bad as it was in Pax Romana or Voltron, and it’s potential to cause the characters problems is only commensurate with how far into the past they travel. But the fact remains: this should be a point of conflict. This isn’t your “high fantasy,” tongue-in-cheek kind of time-travel fodder like Doctor Who, where no species in the galaxy and no humans in all the annals of civilization are particularly curious about the Doctor’s fashion choices. Timeless seems to be making a serious attempt at some solid “what if” scenarios, and already in the first two episodes, the characters have had to be concerned with the authenticity of the clothes they were wearing. But nobody seems to
be at all put off by just how glib this [21st century] woman seems to be with not just any 19th century man, but Robert Lincoln. It’s not enough that they’re both supposed to be speaking English. Speech patterns and mannerisms change over time and with social custom, even within the same language, and especially in 150 years’ time.
- Flat characters. TV land is usually pretty slow on the character development, and often it takes a while for the actors to really find a groove with their roles, so this may yet resolve itself, but so far the characters are fairly archetypal. You’ve got the token black guy, Rufus, who is a little bit squeamish about the whole thing. Then there’s the headstrong square-chinned military guy with a cowboy’s name, Wyatt, who’s secretly sensitive and a widower, who oversimplifies everything and *just might* want to fill the hole in his heart with our female lead. And of course there’s the educated female lead, Lucy, whose profession is apparently “historian” at the University of Someplace. This is the thing that is probably bugging me most, and maybe it’s one of those pitfalls of personally working in the field, just as military personnel can almost never seriously choke down any TV show that depicts military service, since they get everything wrong. What grates on me in this case is how Lucy seems to know everything about everything that ever happened, ever. My position has nothing to do with women’s educational rights or capacity, or some false belief that her mind couldn’t be a steel trap for trivial facts. It has to do with what it means to be a historian working in the field at an elite, university level. The higher up the academic ladder you go in a given field, the more specialized you become, and the less time you have (and frankly, the less room in your brain) for the minutiae of other specialist fields. Not so for Lucy. She apparently knows the finest, minute-by-minute details of every event that has transpired in U.S. history and the complete, intimate biographies of every single minor and major player therein. She never has to look anything up or even “think about it for a second.” It’s all right there. It’s just not very realistic, unless we’re thinking she has savant syndrome. Of course, I do understand the meta–reason for this, but I find it equally grating:
- “Informative” dialog. The function of the “historian” character, of course, is to educate the audience and to give them the context they might not otherwise have. This is important, I admit. After all: general audiences don’t typically know their history all that well, nor how multiple and seemingly unrelated cause-effect relationships are actually intertwined. But there’s just something about the way it’s done in Timeless that feels… pedantic. I’m not sure there’s any way around it, and maybe it’s just another consequence of my own background knowledge. Maybe most viewers are out there feeling fascinated and delighted at this education they wish they had gotten in school (which they probably did, but weren’t paying attention or don’t remember). As for me, I find these expository scenes heavy-handed and painful. Fortunately, it’s usually done with in the first five minutes of the episode, and then we can move on to the parts that are most enjoyable…
What’s Engrossing for Me…
- Just plain fun. Plain and simple: it’s a fun romp. Everybody likes to play “what-if” history, and already Timeless is going straight for the jugular. Episode 1: Hindenburg disaster. Episode 2: Lincoln assassination. They’re not beating around the bush here. I have every confidence we’re going to be treated to all the time-travel tropes in American history: Kennedy, Cuban Missile Crisis, even Let’s-Kill-Hitler. It’s really an adventure show in the truest sense, and my wife and I are already having great fun speculating about consequences at the commerical breaks. Actually it reminds me of a card game that used to get a lot of action around our place called Chrononauts. I’d love to see Timeless survive long enough to cover all the major headlines in American history, then have Looney Labs release a Timeless-themed edition of Chrononauts with images from the show.
- Rufus. So it turns out that the “token black guy” is probably the most interesting character
of all. He’s involved in some sort of intrigue element and is unwillingly in the role of “hidden traitor,” but that’s not the best part. Being black tends to put him in the most difficult of all the conflicts the characters have to face, and so far Malcolm Barrett is doing a fantastic job of conveying the pain he’s at least empathizing with, if not directly experiencing. Honestly, his body language and facial expressions carry far more weight than the sometimes cliché lines he’s given. The character is still kind of goofy, but he seems to be developing and taking on more gravity at a quicker pace than the other two. Basically, you should come for the adventure, but stay for the Rufus.
- Enticing. The writers clearly have big things in store for us, and I’m confident they’re just warming up. There’s been enough foreshadowing to suggest a layered and twisted plotline is going to be revealed, and that character allegiances are likely to shift. The tone of the show feels kind of old-fashioned and Manichean right now, but I think that’s going to evolve. Meanwhile, although the episodic conflicts so far surround major headline issues, the real heart of the show seems to be shaping up along much more personal lines. Each episode so far has ended with a generally positive resolution in regards to the big-ticket items, but very powerful are the tiny ways in which the characters’ personal histories are being altered. Tiny details are falling through the cracks, not enough to create dimension-shattering paradoxes, but just enough to hurt the characters and upset their private worlds. Questions of morality are brought up, like even though overall history remained the same, isn’t it still important that this one tiny thing is now different? It flexes the philosophical muscles.
All things considered, I like the show and I’ll keep coming back for the foreseeable future (pun intended). My worry is how long that future will actually be. The major networks seem to have a real problem with longevity when it comes to geek programming. A few that come to mind right off the top of my head are Firefly, Dollhouse, The Flash (1990), Quantum Leap, and of course, Star Trek, which was on NBC, just as Timeless is now. There are dozens others I’m not thinking of right now. The point is, for whatever reason, geek material doesn’t seem to thrive on network TV, even when it’s very good, and often gets canceled, or at the very best relegated to syndication on some cable channel you don’t have access to. I’ve lost many a favorite show like this, and while I can’t say just yet that Timeless is on my list of favorites, it certainly deserves a chance to prove itself.
As of this writing, Timeless airs Mondays at 10:00pm on NBC.
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