Science fiction has long been obsessed with the concept of time travel, and television producers currently can't get enough of the trope, with just this year alone giving us 11.22.63, Legends of Tomorrow and the upcoming series Frequency and Time After Time. (Not an exhaustive list, either.) So NBC's new adventure thriller Timeless has to do a lot to stand tall in the pack and it mostly does, offering up lightning-paced action, historically high stakes and a steady flow of shocking twists. If only it remembered to have a good time, too.
At the energetic heart of Timeless are two undeniably strong elements. First is its fairly basic premise, which sees a small team hitting up one important historical event after another, chasing down a dangerous villain who aims to change the past for his own nefarious motives. Timeline's second peak is actress Abigail Spencer, best known for dramatically fraught roles on shows like Rectify and Mad Men. As it goes with most of her other projects, Spencer adds a jolt of realism and gravitas, and here it's almost too genuine to comfortably fit inside the madcap narrative.
Spencer stars as history professor Lucy Preston, who is basically forced to join military vet Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter) and the quick-witted engineer Rufus (Malcolm Barrett) in tracking down the ruthless criminal Garcia Flynn, played by Goran Visnjic in his latest trip to U.S. primetime. His goals largely unspoken, Flynn takes unwarranted control of an experimental time machine that, of course, does everything he wants it to, at least in the earliest episodes available for review. The three "heroes" have a time machine of their own, and they don't get any kind of tutorial before they're thrown into a past that could seriously mess with the future if any changes are made.
You know how this one goes, guys: changes are made. Changes are definitely made, and there's no real way to know just how far-flung the cause and effect goes, although what we see definitely piques the curiosity. The first episode is almost entirely set around the Hindenberg disaster, completely with an "Oh, the humanity." Because it's everyone's first time heading back in time, there's the expected learning process that is quite fun to watch, since it's largely based on trial and error, and some of the same goes for the second episode, which is tied to Abraham Lincoln's assassination. The heightened superhero/comic book elements help to keep the tone buoyed, and it implies that you someone involves understands just how silly this all is.
For the most part, though, these trips aren't actually as fun as they could or should be, and it's never really that funny. Timeless doesn't seem quite comfortable allowing itself to be a goofy time-travel show, which adds an unevenness that works against the more hectic moments. For one, Lucy is dealing with an ill mother and other personal problems that are not immune to Flynn's past-changing antics, so too many of her reactions are stress-filled and without much levity. Meanwhile, Wyatt is the textbook definition of a TV military man, with all the fisticuffs and weapon knowledge needed to take on John Wilkes Booth and the like, so his sense of humor is pretty stale. And Rufus' laughs come from how ludicrously stereotypical his smart guy role is; he gets to perform all the impossible tech science needed to save the day.
Then there's the timeline-reviewing team at the time machine's headquarters. The team is composed of Paterson Joseph's possibly duplicitous Connor Mason, Sakina Jaffrey's pragmatic Denise Christopher and Claudia Doumit's sympathetic Jiya. These are solid actors, and they're basically just a means for exposition, so hopefully Timeless can figure out a way to incorporate everyone into equally entertaining arcs.
It would be a lot easier to let Timeless slide for all of its hokiest moments - a ticking time bomb! - if there indeed was the slightest momentum gained in the humor department. I sincerely expected someone to need to "override a mainframe" in order to stop a 19th century murder. It's possible that some (or most?) audience members will equate the glass ceiling on everyone's skill set to James Bond or some other unstoppable protagonist, but for me the more glaringly preposterous moments just undercut some of the legitimately clever and well-executed ideas.
The co-creation of TV vets Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan, Timeless does indeed feel like the sum of its developmental parts, mixing fast-paced action sequences with quasi-procedural storytelling and giving it a big genre twist. Eric Kripke is the mind behind the long-running Supernatural and the short-lived Revolution, both of which known for their rabid fanbases. Shawn Ryan created the largely impeccable The Shield, The Chicago Code and Last Resort, and was also an executive producer behind the recent Amazon caper Mad Dogs and a major entry in the Cancelled Too Soon file, Terriers. There have been a lot of brilliant moves made by both Kripke and Ryan, and I look forward to seeing just how many of them enter into Timeless.
At it's core, there isn't anything really exceedingly original about Timeless, but nothing needs to be new to be worth one's time if the quality is there. With a charismatic cast and endless potential for where the history-skewing narrative can go, Timeless has all the right pieces to be the most exciting high-concept show on TV. The twisty narrative is definitely intriguing enough to latch onto, especially with the expressive Abigail Spencer anchoring it all, and a lot of the pleasure will come from seeing where and when they go next. Perhaps they should hit up the 1960s to pick up some good vibrations to lighten things up.