oral history

‘What the Hell?’ The Inside Story of How Timeless Was Canceled and Uncanceled in Just Three Days

Photo: NBC/Justin Lubin/NBC

When Timeless co-creator Shawn Ryan heard the news on a Saturday morning last May, he couldn’t believe it. “What the hell is going on? Are we being Punk’d?” he remembers thinking. Three days earlier, NBC had canceled his time-travel drama, but in an unprecedented move, the network switched course: Timeless would live to fight for ten more episodes. “That is the right decision,” Ryan thought, “but how on earth did you come to it three days after you made the wrong decision?”

When a network cancels a show, it usually dies then and there. Occasionally, another network or a streaming service might revive a show — as in the case of Community, Cougar Town, or The Killing — but networks never reverse course on their own decisions, much less in public, much less within the course of a few days. With Timeless, NBC did, thanks to fans who had built a devoted community around the show (but didn’t necessarily watch it live on its first airing) and because of negotiations between NBC and Sony, which produces it. Meanwhile, the Timeless cast and crew went from mourning its end to celebrating a new beginning. Before the series returns on March 11, Vulture spoke with creators, cast, and TV executives about this once-in-a-lifetime Timeless experience.

Shawn Ryan (series co-creator): I had been optimistic. As our delayed viewing numbers were coming in, I felt encouraged. [Series co-creator Eric Kripke] and I went in March of last year and pitched to NBC, (a) why we thought the show deserved to be picked up, and (b) what our vision of season two would be. After that meeting, I felt very good. I was actually surprised by the cancellation.

Matt Lanter (Wyatt): Within the last couple of episodes, it seemed that people were really, really paying attention to it.

Shawn Ryan: When you extended delayed viewing out to a month after the premiere, we ended up being like the fourth-highest-ranked scripted show on NBC. Drama or comedy. So we had a lot of really passionate viewers. A majority of them weren’t showing up Monday night at 10 p.m.

Malcolm Barrett (Rufus): I saw there was a heavy fan base, which I had never really seen until this moment. When we got canceled, there was tons of folks on Twitter, and fan art, and hashtags, and all this is stuff that I’ve never experienced in my entire career.

Eric Kripke (series co-creator): My reaction was, “Oh, shit.” I’ve been through it before, but it never gets easier. I’ve had that reaction and usually that reaction involves scotch. There’s a couple nights with that. And then what made it interesting and challenging, like in any grieving process, you start to move on. You have all the difficult calls. You talk to everybody. Everyone makes plans to get together and have a drink.

Shawn Ryan: I spent a lot of the rest of the day, Wednesday, and a good part of Thursday calling the actors and other people involved in the show and saying, “We’re so sorry. It feels unfair now, but this is the TV world we live in. It was great working with you. Hopefully, we’ll meet again on this Hollywood journey one day.”

Malcolm Barrett: I’ve been in this game awhile, so I take everything with a grain of salt. You hope for the best and prepare for the worst. I happened to be working on another show at the time, Preacher, so I was kinda like, “All right, I guess this other thing is meant to be.”

Abigail Spencer (Lucy): It was a terrible week. I’d gone through a breakup, I found out the show got canceled. Then there was a turn — my friend Josh Radnor had written his first play and he called me and asked me to be in it. I thought, I’m unemployed, so I guess I’m coming to do your play.

Matt Lanter: Two days after, on a Friday, my wife walks downstairs about 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. or so. I’m just starting to pour a cup of coffee and she puts a pregnancy test in my face and tells me that I’m going to be a dad.

Eric Kripke: As all this is going on — as is I think is frankly par for the course these days — Sony said, “Sit tight. We are going to try to figure out how to get this show back from the dead. Tell the fans to hang in there and we’re on it.” And literally 99 out of 100 times that goes nowhere, right?

Shawn Ryan: I found out on that Friday that a pilot I had worked on, SWAT, had been picked up. In my mind, it was very much, Well, this is the universe.

Eric Kripke: On a Friday, I sent an email to the president of Sony at the time and was like, “Hey, guys. It’s over right? It’s time to give some people closure. My writers are still like, ‘Should we be interviewing for jobs?’ We should cut them loose so they can all get jobs and get salaries and the fans should know too.” They emailed back me and Shawn and the email was two words. It said, “Sit tight.” Sit tight! What does “sit tight” mean?

Shawn Ryan: On Saturday morning, I got a surprise call from the two co-presidents of Sony at that time, Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, saying just hang on a few minutes. Then Jen Salke calls from NBC and was like, “Hey, how would you guys like to make more episodes of Timeless?”

Bob Greenblatt (NBC Entertainment chairman, speaking at upfronts last year): We decided to move on from it and then woke up the next morning all of us, and heard from fans and, you know, the outcry and we thought, You know what? Let’s figure out how to bring it back. We went back to the drawing board in every way with our partners at Sony, and I’m happy to say we were able to figure out a way to bring it back.

Shawn Ryan: It was explained to us that a lot of financial things and ownership issues go into all these decisions. Essentially, they thought they made a financial decision, because they always loved and adored the show. The overnight numbers were a bit of a disappointment, but once you start adding in delayed viewings — and the longer you went into the delayed viewing — the better and better we did.

Eric Kripke: I get a call at like 9:30 in the morning, whatever it is, and it’s Jen Salke at NBC. She says, “We’re picking up the show for ten more episodes.” They really responded to the fan outcry, which was amazing online.

Shawn Ryan: They only gave us an hour to call all the actors.

Eric Kripke: I’m like, “I’m taking my 6-year-old to gym class right now.” It’s like someone suddenly dumps like an ice-cold bucket of cat adrenaline on your head and then you’re just like, “Whoa! Okay, we gotta get everybody going.” My son is in a gymnasium tumbling around, and I’m sitting outside in the reception area on my phone. We’re trying to call everybody.

Matt Lanter: I don’t know why I don’t have Shawn Ryan’s cell phone number in my phone, but I’m like, “Who’s calling me from a cell phone on Saturday morning?” I tried to call Abigail. She was sleeping — I think she had gone out the night before or something. I couldn’t get ahold of her, so I did my own little video.

Abigail Spencer: I had my friend’s birthday party, so I stayed out all night that night. I didn’t know the show was picked up because I was dead asleep. Passed out. Phone on airplane mode. I was flying my mother out for Mother’s Day. I turned on my phone just to make sure my mom was flying and everything was okay, and there were hundreds of texts. Lanter’s like, “Where are you? Can I come over?” I’m like, “What?” My Twitter notifications were like, “Congratulations!”

Malcolm Barrett: On Saturday I turned all my devices off and was just taking a personal day, not even thinking about anything. I think somewhere around noon or something, I turned on my phone and computer. I saw I had a voice-mail from my agent. You never get reached by your agent during a weekend unless it’s a big deal. On an iPhone, you can read your voice-mail — it literally just said, “Check the internet.”

Abigail Spencer: I just thought it was the fans. They are so wonderful, I just thought they made it up. I thought it was fake news. Then my agent started texting me, “Call us right now.” Then I pulled up my email and sure enough, I had an email from Shawn Ryan saying this is not a joke.

Malcolm Barrett: I think we all were just sitting there like, “What the hell?”

Abigail Spencer: I’ve been acting almost 18 years and I’d seen shows get canceled and then picked up by other networks months later. But I’d never seen a network do this.

Shawn Ryan: I’ve been on shows where they’re canceled and you feel shitty about it, but you can see it from their perspective. Terriers was a good example. That was a streaming show before there were streaming shows. I think that show would have done a lot better had it come of age in the streaming era. The numbers just weren’t there for [FX executive] John Landgraf to pick it up. I understood.  

To Bob Greenblatt and Jen Salke’s credit, I think it was a mistake to cancel [Timeless]. Not many people would have the guts to come in the next day and question that decision and then move heaven and earth to make it happen. I give them a ton of credit.

Eric Kripke: A lot of us have kids and it’s something that we all want our kids to watch. It means something to us, so it was a pleasure to be able to make more.

Shawn Ryan: We’ve moved the filming for season two from Vancouver down to Los Angeles, which has sort of made it a lot easier on the actors and the writers. And has allowed us to be more hands-on.

Abigail Spencer: It was pretty glorious, we were stoked. What was even better is that they decided to move the show to Los Angeles. I’m a single mom, I have a little boy who goes to school in L.A., and I wasn’t able to bring him to Vancouver.

Matt Lanter: I get to sleep in my own bed and I get to see my family, having a newborn baby.

Shawn Ryan: Because it really was a close-knit group, we had scheduled this big party at a restaurant. A wake to mourn the end of the show. After the show had been canceled we were like, Let’s all get together next week for one final thing. It became a big celebratory congratulations party instead.

Eric Kripke: What the renewal causes in the writers room is a smoke em if you got em mentality, which I think is healthy for a show. Someone, once in while, brings up, “Well, are you sure we should have a story move that big?” And I’m like, “Yeah, when else are we gonna do it?”

Robert Greenblatt: I wish we were that clever in the middle of scheduling meetings to think, “Oh, let’s say this show is canceled and then, two days later, let’s reverse it.” Maybe we’ll do that on some other shows, so keep your eyes peeled.  But we would never do that to the creators of a show. They weren’t in on it.

Shawn Ryan: I think it’s a fluke. I won’t count on it happening for me in my lifetime again.

The Story of How Timeless Was Canceled and Uncanceled