The time-travel adventure Timeless is a rare network series that seems to have put a lot of thought into its premise. The creators are Eric Kripke (Supernatural, Revolution) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield), who have a knack for producing genre entertainment with a personality. I’ll be curious to see how it develops over, well, time. On the basis of the first two episodes — which are appealing, despite a certain clunkiness, and smarter than they probably had to be — it strikes me as the kind of series that can’t reach its fullest artistic and intellectual potential without becoming so narratively complex that the audience’s eyes glaze over. I can’t say much more than that without spoiling a lot of key plot twists, so the rest of this review will try to write around those; suffice to say that the show seems to take much of its inspiration from the closing image of Ray Bradbury’s time-travel short story “The Sound of Thunder,” and the bittersweet ending of the very best episode of the original Star Trek, “City on the Edge of Forever.” If you change one thing in the past, you alter the future, maybe radically, so maybe it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.
The antagonist of Timeless, Garcia Flynn (Goran Visnjic), doesn’t think so. He’s an ex–Delta Force operative who’s stolen a time machine created by smug genius Conor Mason (Paterson Joseph) and gone back to 1937 to interfere with the Hindenburg crash. Representatives of the U.S. government dust off an older version of the time machine known as the Lifeboat and send history professor Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer), ex-soldier Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter), and engineer Rufus Carlin (Malcolm Barrett) to Paterson, New Jersey, to stop Flynn, although they aren’t sure what, exactly, he’s got planned or why he’s doing this. (Lucy comes to believe that Flynn wants to “strangle the United States in its cradle,” but we don’t know if this is correct.)
There are reasonably witty versions of the expected fish-out-of-water jokes (whenever the visitors show a picture of Flynn in a jumpsuit and ask if anyone’s seen him, they ask, “Why is he wearing pajamas?”); and of course the time travelers dazzle 1937 folk with knowledge gleaned from the future. But Timeless goes an intriguing step further by letting Lucy and Rufus (who is African-American) carry a lot of the culture-clash material while contrasting their difficulties against the relative comfort of Wyatt, a handsome white guy who doesn’t have much of a problem fitting into most situations (although he does have his own debilitating emotional baggage: he’s a widower who can’t accept the inevitability of his wife’s death). A lot of shows would gloss over the sexist condescension and blatant racism that Lucy and Rufus would encounter if they visited earlier eras of American history; Timeless at least makes a game stab at acknowledging that without seeming to condescend to the past — or worse, hold up the present as an exemplar of enlightenment. We also get to see Rufus’s frustration build and peak: He starts his stint in 1937 dismissing, say, segregation on public transit as an annoyance (“So, the back of the bus was amazing”); but a few scenes and indignities later, when he’s asked to create a distraction in a jail cell so that Wyatt can pick the lock, he comes up with a furious monologue about the changes he hopes his bigoted jailer will live to see.
The second episode, which revolves around the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, is better than the pilot — more settled and confident, as second episodes tend to be — and strikes unexpectedly deeper notes, not just in the scenes of Rufus interacting with black Union Army soldiers who used to be slaves (one of them expresses joy at the prospect of working on land that used to belong to his master, and Rufus says uncomfortably, “Yeah, it’s all smooth sailing from here on out”), but also in the way it accounts for all the changes, major and minor, that occur in the present as a result of the heroes’ time-tripping interventions. That smashed butterfly on a hunter’s boot heel that ended Bradbury’s short story has many equivalents in this series. Each time the future visitors return to their present it’s a different present, and the changes are not portrayed in a cute way.
I like that Timeless takes its characters’ emotions seriously enough to remember to account for them when a new episode starts. It’s hard enough on the characters to go through whatever they go through in the past; it’s even harder to return to the world they knew and find it changed in some small yet profound way and struggle to process the difference. Indeed, the most promising aspect of the series is the challenges it could provide to its cast, if the writing continues to sharpen. Spencer, Lanter, and Barrett, in particular, might eventually find themselves starring in a serialized anthology series disguised as a light adventure with a new mission each week. Their characters are changed by the experiences, often in a wrenching and painful way, but they have no support from the people in the “present” because the latter are living in the same reality they’ve always known.