One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
“For better or worse, and in this case worse, this is real history,” professor Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer) informs her class in the opening minutes of Timeless. She’s giving a lecture on Lyndon B. Johnson, and his obsession with his own genitalia, way before the time travel shenanigans ensue in NBC’s new crack at a serialized sci-fi adventure, and her words feel simultaneously appropriate to 2016 and a decent summation of Timeless as a whole.
For better or worse, and in this case mostly better, the show works. Co-creators Eric Kripke (Revolution, Supernatural) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield) navigate the tricky waters of a time travel serial with snappy aplomb, managing to avoid getting bogged down in thinking-about-it-too-hard minutiae, but economy shuns creativity at most plot turns. There are a few moments of aha inventiveness (particularly surrounding the pilot’s screwing around with the fate of the Hindenburg), but mostly Timeless is entirely okay with functioning in the wheelhouse of every other time travel/sci-fi adventure that’s come before.
After setting up the true fate of the Hindenburg back in 1937 (it didn’t end well, for those who don’t know), Timeless introduces college history professor Lucy, who’s the first clichéd cog in Timeless‘s economical swashbuckling adventure machine: she’s highly educated in a particular subject that a secret organization desperately needs. Soon enough, Agent Denise Christopher (Sakina Jaffrey) whisks Lucy and soldier Wyatt (Matt Lanter) off to a hidden facility and informs them that a wealthy man, Connor Mason (Paterson Joseph), has invented a time machine behind the government’s back, and now a maniacal criminal named Flynn (Goran Visnjic) has stolen it for his own assumedly sinister purposes.
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Or so Lucy, Wyatt, and coder Rufus (Malcolm Barrett) are told when they’re tasked with retrieving – and stopping – Flynn with the help of the original time machine prototype (both of which look humorously like the CBS eye logo). Shenanigans quickly ensue, mostly centered around Lucy’s running anachronism commentary (her wire bra and nylon blouse make her feel like a sore thumb in 1937), Wyatt’s hang up with a reporter (Shantel VanSanten) who looks just like his dead wife, and the entire period’s hang up with Rufus’s skin color. Timeless at least deals with those era-relevant prejudices in a scene or two, but a meant-to-be-scathing monologue late in the hour overcorrects for the show’s subtleties before with a breathless rant about Martin Luther King, Jr., O.J. Simpson, and Barack Obama. It’s justified, but overly earnest in a way that makes the moment – and Barrett’s character – ring false.
What works best is Lucy’s endless wonder, which convinces you that what you’re seeing is imaginative and creative, even when it mostly isn’t, and Spencer’s delivery and portrayal of the character. She’s worked all her life learning about history, and picking up the torch from her prolific, dying mom, and in the genre’s truest fashion, she gets to see everything first-hand of what she could once only imagine. She manages to ooze smarts and “that’s how it really happened?!” trivia (I learned more about the reason the Hindenburg exploded than I ever realized I wanted to), but in a totally gripping way. The team’s ultimate goals for saving history from Flynn’s meddling usually boil down to simple, but satisfying, small-scale alterations made at the whim of Lucy’s wit; it’s classic butterfly-effect stuff, but fun to watch play out nonetheless.
Expectations continue to line up as Wyatt continually refers to Lucy as ma’am, setting the two off on a will-they-or-won’t-they season arc that I was over with before the first character pointedly fixes that classic time travel adverb. “She can’t tell us exactly where the mothership has gone, but she can tell us when,” Mason reveals about the ratty, dilapidated “lifeboat” machine that’s connected to the one Flynn has stolen. Timeless delivers that line a few more times in the pilot, each one only further admitting to its total surrender at the hands of the genre’s corny side. It’s more endearing than it is annoying, thankfully.
The worst transgressor in regards to the show’s gleeful adoption of various tropes is easily Visnjic’s on-the-nose bad guy Flynn. Not much is divulged about his backstory in the pilot, but in an attempt to infuse mystery, Kripke and Ryan have engineered dullness. The guy’s just not scary, intimidating, or remotely daunting of a figure for the three leads to go up against, even after particular information is revealed when Lucy faces off with Flynn as the Hindenburg crashes and burns around them. “You’re more important in ways you can’t even imagine,” he teases her, capping a scene that packs visual flair with one canned line out of the Pilot Playbook after another.
On the plus side, his maniacal plan is just goofy enough to yank Timeless back from the DVR trash bin. I won’t reveal details, but there’s a weirdly topical edge to Flynn’s supposed endgame – and to Timeless as a whole – that reveals that the show has more smarts and a willingness to divert from the play sheet than initially thought. Connections can be made pretty easily to the presidential race in particular, but Timeless doesn’t shove anything down your throat. Flynn’s plan is broad and all-encompassing in its agenda, and in that sense the show benefits from his burn-it-all-down immoral generics.
Kripke’s underrated Revolution faced a similar slow uptick in the cleverness department (its second season is tight, riveting, and perfectly weird; its first has a few fun Stephen King references and that’s about it), so there’s a possibility for Timeless to continue to squirrel away these intriguing nuggets and reveal its glorious stash in due time. The idea of this gang screwing around with the JFK assassination, or the wreck of the Titanic – both teased on the show’s cheesy poster art – is an oddly humorous carrot on the end of the pilot’s stick.
Is it worth waiting around for that? As is the case with most pilots, it’s hard to say. The show’s time travel will likely be too simplified for anyone looking for something dark and tangible (Primer this ain’t), but its overall world building is admirable and its sole rule (travelers can’t go back to any time they already exist in), which is bound to have some end-of-season offenders, streamlines what could otherwise have been a confusing headache of a set-up. For better or worse, this is the premiere cable sci-fi show of the season, and only time will tell if it’s actually better or worse than its progenitors.
Functional without much of the awestruck wonder its premise should elucidate, Timeless still scrapes by thanks to one of the fall's best new lead characters (and actresses) and a hint that things could get far more creatively brazen down the line.