Timeless Series Premiere Recap: Past Imperfect

Abigail Spencer as Lucy Preston. Photo: Joe Lederer/NBC
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Editor’s Rating

Welcome to Timeless, the show that has such a high-concept premise, it fits into a single tagline: Quantum Leap meets Lost.

This particular time-travel drama is a collision of hokey network serials and sprawling cable epics. It's brought to you by co-creators Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke, whose combined résumé includes shows from across the genre spectrum: The Shield, Supernatural, Terriers, and Revolution. Based on its first hour, I'm a little worried Timeless might turn out to be a lot like Revolution; that is, an ambitious, fine-but-not-great series that doesn't lure enough viewers back week after week. But I'm jumping far ahead into the future, aren't I? Let's first revisit the immediate past of tonight's premiere.

Timeless is about a ragtag gang of do-gooder time-travelers who must track down a rogue gang of baddie time-travelers before they manipulate history and end life as we know it. And for our first historical do-over, we get a doozy: the Hindenburg! (R.I.P. to all the Hindenberg jokes I would've made had this episode turned out to be … a disaster. I swear that's the only one.) As we witness the airship's ill-fated arrival in New Jersey, the opening scene reeks of some unfortunate, Michael Bay–esque storytelling techniques: an overuse of visually jarring quick cuts, an abundance of CGI, and a ton of clunky, sexist dialogue. ("Is something this big supposed to fly?" "Men. Always obsessed with how big something is.")

The pilot was on the verge of losing me early, but just as I was about to unleash an eye roll in response to the supremely bad reenactment of Herbert Morrison's "Oh, the humanity!" broadcast, my husband leaned over and asked, "Did you know that two-thirds of the people on board the Hindenburg survived?" I didn't, and that's a prime example of what I love about hokey serials. Sometimes, you can learn something from ’em! (Thanks for all the legal mumbo-jumbo, Law & Order!)

Anyway, after that introductory set-piece, we move on to the reason why many of you likely tuned in: Abigail Spencer, late of Mad Men, Rectify, and True Detective, and thus an emissary from the high-art half of the TV continuum. Spencer plays Lucy Preston, a history professor with a winking sense of humor, as evidenced by the juicy tidbit she drops into her class lecture: "A White House reporter asked LBJ, 'Why are we in Vietnam?' And the president whipped out his genitalia and said, 'This is why.' It's true. He called it Jumbo." (Fact check: The nickname is true!) She also serves as a conduit for the show's overarching theme, which I'm pretty sure an NBC executive uttered aloud, verbatim, during a Timeless pitch meeting: "This is real history. To understand it, we gotta get inside these people's heads, their loves, their quirks, their … Jumbos."

After finding out from her boss (who is also her fiancé) that she'll probably be denied tenure, Lucy heads to her bedridden mother's house to exchange exposition with her spunky sister. ("So we'll all just live off your podcast?" "That department is mom's legacy." "Stop worrying about disappointing mom. Make your own future.") I'd like to see the real-life Venn diagram that criss-crosses "working in the academic department that your mother founded" and "your fiancé chairs the department" and "you're denied tenure." M'kay, sure.

Of course, Lucy's information-packed night is just beginning. Over at the local tech billionaire's poorly guarded warehouse, a bunch of guys in Buck Rogers Halloween costumes — led by a man named Garcia Flynn (ER's Goran Višnjić) — steal a time-travel pod that apparently goes from zero to [insert year here] in like six seconds. Homeland Security promptly shows up at Lucy's door and her response is, literally, "Whatever you're selling, we're not buying," which is totally what academically minded people would say when Homeland Security shows up. Yada yada yada, Lucy agrees to go see about the time-traveling bandits.

I'm being glib because the first half of the Timeless premiere is the lesser half. It simply rushes through too much plot, as is the standard in hokey, efficient, hour-long network dramas. Things improve in the second half, in part because the show starts poking fun at its own narrative absurdity. Case in point: A Homeland Security agent sarcastically explains that Connor Mason, the show's Elon Musk stand-in, "invented a time machine and chose not to tell the government about it until it was stolen by terrorists." Lucy responds, "This is a joke, right? This can't be possible." Hey, Timeless, whatever you're selling, I'm buying! You do sell sample packs, right? Put me down for one of those.

From there, we're led into Lucy's meet-cute with Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter), a Delta Force hunk I liked in spite of myself. "Are you asleep?" she asks Wyatt after finding him with eyes closed inside the prototype time-travel pod they're about to use to catapult through the fourth dimension. "No, ma'am," he replies with all the tough-exterior moxie of a (very watered-down) Indiana Jones. "Oh, okay," she says. "Good." I must admit, I laughed. These two go on to engage in some (very watered-down) Bogart-Bacall repartee, so groundwork is clearly being laid for a potential romance, tenure-denying fiancé be damned.

Rounding out their Scooby-Doo trio is computer geek Rufus, played by Better Off Ted alum Malcolm Barrett. To anyone else who's carried a torch for ABC's brilliant but short-lived sitcom since 2010, please join me in shouting: "LEM!!!" I've been waiting for a new Barrett vehicle for years, and Rufus is worth the wait. He's an instantly empathetic figure who, as the lone African-American time traveler, faces grave danger by traveling into the past. As Rufus puts it, riffing on that old Louis C.K. bit, "There is literally no place in American history … that would be awesome for me." Throughout the episode, he adds jaw-dropping one-liners like, "So the back of the bus was amazing," and "On a scale from Million Man March to Mississippi Burning, how safe do you think I will be out there?" The dork in me very much wants to believe in Timeless, and Rufus is already drawing me in.

Once the Hindenburg lands successfully, setting off a new course of reality in which it doesn't meet disaster until its return flight, the action really picks up. I loved the surprise kidnapping when Flynn's henchmen ambush them, ditto the tension of seeing our heroes wiggle their way out of what looks like a very impossible situation. (Committing crimes! On an airship! That is about to go up in flames!) It is a big improvement over the first Hindenburg scene, which is maudlin and cheesy. The second time around is much more clever — if still a little cheesy, with too-on-the-nose dialogue like, "Flynn just saved the Hindenburg, so no, I am definitely not okay."

Amid all this, we're introduced to a heavy-handed subplot about Wyatt's unceasing sense of obligation toward a journalist named Kate Drummond, which almost derails their mission. What could be so important to merit such a risk? Well, Wyatt is a widower who feels guilt over his wife's passing. That's it. It's a pretty clumsy way to establish his character's backstory, if you ask me. Also, it seems like Kate Drummond isn't real? Boooo! (Please let me know in the comments if you've discovered otherwise.) When some kid slips her name into an essay and winds up with a C-minus, that's on you, Timeless.

Having done a C-minus job themselves, Lucy and company head back to 2016, when a most heartbreaking twist is revealed: Lucy's sister no longer exists, thanks to some sort of post-Hindenburg butterfly effect. Juxtaposed with Lucy's relief at seeing her mother well again, this development really got to me. Oh, the humanity!

After one episode, what intrigues me most about Timeless is the Lost-like long game it's setting up. What did Mason mean when he told Rufus, "We both know it has to be you?" Why does Flynn "know everything about" Lucy? What is this Rittenhouse he knows about? If these overarching story lines play out in riveting fashion — and if Timeless rewrites history following each mission — then the show might actually live up to its name.