NBC is excited about Timeless, its new time-traveling procedural that repeatedly sends a team of experts back in time to stop a nefarious villain from messing up history. Hilariously, this premise usually requires ensuring that bad things — like the Hindenburg disaster, or even President Lincoln’s assassination — still happen.
But will Timeless be good, ridiculously bad, or somewhere in between? Below, Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and culture writer Caroline Framke talk it out.
Todd VanDerWerff: Look, Caroline, I'll just admit it: Timeless is really stupid. But after watching the pilot, you seemed to find its stupidity galling, while I thought, "Shit, I'm going to watch seven seasons of this, aren't I?"
So I'm wondering why you found it so galling. And then maybe I'll explain why I'm going to keep watching it in an answer that’s more expansive than "I watch all stupid sci-fi TV."
Caroline Framke: I don’t know if "galling" is the right word. ... It’s more that I thought it was a bit basic. Which isn’t exactly what I wanted from a show about time-traveling crime fighters, you know?
Every character is exactly the cliché you’d expect, not a single thing was surprising, and, okay, if you’re going to start with the Hindenburg disaster, you’d better be ready to do something pretty spectacular. When the episode ended, I just kind of shrugged.
Todd: "I wish more zeppelins had exploded" — Caroline Framke, Vox.
Caroline: Well, yeah! Kind of!
But I wish Timeless’s pilot had done something more interesting to dress up the show’s silly but ultimately simple premise. Not that it seemed like it was trying to.
Todd: Right. I guess I liked that it was so basic. I kept thinking of Legends of Tomorrow, The CW's time-traveling superpowered team-up series, which I found jaw-droppingly bad, and I liked that the Timeless pilot didn't try to do too much. It put its characters in a time machine. It established its (surprisingly straightforward) time travel rules. It revisited the Hindenburg.
Now that I've seen episode two (which focuses on the assassination of Lincoln, of all things), I'm a little less convinced I'll be watching 500 episodes of Timeless if the show lasts that long. It definitely commits the exhausting "let's make sure to repeat the pilot for the viewers just catching up at home" sin that early episodes of so many broadcast shows are guilty of.
But, hey, I like the premise well enough. I like the actors well enough. Series co-creator Eric Kripke is really good at spinning seasons-long mythologies. (He was the showrunner of Supernatural's first five seasons, which perfectly paced standalone episodes with major revelations about the show's world.) And Shawn Ryan, one of the best showrunners out there, who previously worked on The Shield and Terriers, is also aboard. I think we Could Have Something Here.
But while we’re talking about Barrett, can we talk about that scene in episode one, the Hindenburg episode, where Rufus gives an impassioned speech to a racist guard about how many cool things black people are about to do? I cringed so hard I almost sprained my neck.
That’s the kind of scene that makes me wary of Timeless. It thinks it’s being very clever when it’s just painting by numbers.
Todd: There's a moment in the second episode, the Abraham Lincoln episode, where Rufus argues that by saving Lincoln's life, Lucy could END RACISM FOREVER, and you kind of want to see if the show will go there. But of course it can't.
What’s especially tricky about this situation is that Lucy and Rufus, due to being female and black, respectively, will be forced to exist within cultures that overtly oppress them when they go into the past, while remaining the sort of take-charge heroes we like to watch on TV.
At a recent Timeless screening I attended, Ryan briefly argued that this is supposed to be an examination of patriarchal systems or something, but I don't know that broadcast network TV really is going to dig that deep.
Caroline: Also, the idea that saving Lincoln would eradicate racism really just feels like a white fantasy rather than a real belief that Rufus would hold.
I like the idea that they’d have to contend with the actual, unpleasant realities of being oppressed people in the past — earlier this year, Comedy Central’s Time Traveling Bong explored that concept as a joke, and it was pretty sharp more often than not — but the pilot in no way convinced me that Timeless has the kind of room to take it on in a meaningful way.
Todd: Rufus at least presents a quick summary of A) why the assassination was so disheartening for recently freed slaves, and B) how Lincoln being alive might have continued his ideas of Southern Reconstruction, which would have hewed closer to some sort of racial reparations than what actually happened.
But, again, nobody involved with the show is interested in actually wrestling with that idea, and the show's time travel rules (which state that the series can never revisit eras it's already been to once) actively work against doing so.
It's also telling that in the Lincoln episode, Rufus’s major conflict is about whether he's got the guts to save Andrew Johnson's life, not the harsh realities of being a black man in post-Civil War Washington.
It feels like Timeless is glancing at a ton of interesting ideas without actually diving into them. I understand that it can’t devote a ton of time to all of them, but if it could give me even a single surprising nod to those ideas in the meantime — whether through the plot or even just the characters’ personalities — then I’d be far more interested in waiting it out.
I do not, for instance, care even at all about Lucy’s supposed chemistry with Chiseled Soldier With a Checkered Past, her other time-traveling compatriot (whose name I’ve long forgotten; that’s how much of a personality suck he is). Come on, we’ve seen this a million times before. Give me something new to chew on, Timeless! You have all of time and space to do it!
Todd: But, look, I'm not sure I want or need Timeless to do anything new. It wants to be a stupid time travel show about people chasing a bad guy into the past to preserve American history. And on that level, I think it succeeds!
Caroline: Sure! But I’m probably not gonna invest a lot of time in it.
Todd: I will say that the last 10 minutes of the pilot or so are going to be enough to keep me watching. There's also a pretty cool revelation about one character's past in the second episode that left me wanting to see more.
I've been burned a lot of times by shows like this offering just enough to keep me going, but I trust Kripke on that level.
And hopefully you and our readers know me well enough to know that I'm there for a show where the heroes go back in time to make sure tragic events happen exactly as they should. Why, if we're lucky, by the season one finale, Lucy will be killing William Henry Harrison herself.