What’s the trick to getting time travel right on television? Make it so damn compelling you forget how complicated it’s all supposed to be.
When you can simply go back and fix your mistakes, it can hard to build believable stakes. The weight of the gimmick has killed more than a few well-meaning TV shows (Life On Mars, Seven Days, Journeyman, Odyssey 5) along the way.
But NBC’s freshman sci-fi drama Timeless, which returns tonight, manages to avoid the pitfalls. The pitch is simple: Rogue NSA agent Garcia Flynn (Goran Višnji?) steals a cutting-edge time machine and starts wreaking havoc on major events in history. So historian Lucy (Abigail Spencer), soldier Wyatt (Matt Lanter), and pilot Rufus (Malcolm Barrett) pursue him in a rickety beta model. Chaos ensues.
The series was created by cult hit-makers Shawn Ryan (The Shield) and Eric Kripke (Supernatural), and plays to their respective strengths. It has the well-rounded character work that Ryan has displayed throughout his career (go back and watch The Shield if you need a reminder), and the “big idea” approach Kripke has taken on projects like NBC’s short-lived Revolution. With Timeless, they hit the sweet spot of serving those two masters. It’s a big story, but it doesn’t lose track of the people at the heart of it.
These ambitious, sci-fi event series can be notoriously hard to get right. Ever since Lost took the world by storm, networks have been trying to replicate its success. A quick glance at the failed blockbusters that have littered the schedule in the years since (shows like Terra Nova, The Event, and the aforementioned Revolution come to mind) are proof that it’s not easy to turn these ambitious ideas into workable television. One big reason Timeless works so well: The series doesn’t get lost in the MacGuffin of it all. It focuses on the way time travel affects its characters—not the other way around.
Time travel is a hot these days, with 12 Monkeys, Outlander, Legends of Tomorrow, and Hulu’s miniseries 11.22.63 all dipping into the subject with varying levels of success. Some of these shows take the rules of time travel very seriously and use it to tell the story of a broken future (see 12 Monkeys), and under the right circumstances, that can work really well. Others have gone positively bonkers with the premise (see the zombie Civil War on Legends of Tomorrow), which can also be its own type of brain-breaking entertainment. Outlander has carved out its own niche, using time travel as a jumping off point for a compelling period drama.
But Timeless keeps its version of time travel grounded enough to feel like it actually takes place in the world we live in. The history we grew up learning is taken out of the textbook, cast into live action and completely up for grabs. It’s thrilling to see the team escape through the Alamo, witness Lincoln’s assassination, and hang out with James Bond author and real-life spy Ian Fleming in Nazi Germany. The characters make changes on the fly, either by accident or design. Instead of skirting around these big moments, like most time travel stories tend to do, Timeless revels in them. Half the fun of time travel is playing in the past, and that’s exactly what this show does. Each episode is basically a little period-set caper unto itself, making the show infinitely accessible for casual viewing, while still slowly moving forward its larger story. Think Doctor Who when it goes the historical route, just with less timey-wimey and no sonic sunglasses to get out of a jam. It might seem like an obvious narrative tool, but it works. Yes, there are still rules to time travel, but Timeless never gets too bogged down in them. It seems that whenever a question of character or science comes into play, character wins out every time. As it should.
The series has even used its time-hopping to tell some meaningful stories about race and how the world has changed, as Rufus, a black scientist who is easily the smartest man in most rooms, struggles to find his role whenever the team goes back to pretty much every era that’s not the modern day. It’s a stark reminder of just how different the world was even a few decades ago, and how far we still need to go in the years to come. Like all good science fiction, Timeless uses the fantastic to shine a lens on the ordinary, to make us think about our own world.
That said, there are consequences when you’re writing the playbook as you go along. Yes, the series may have altered the events of the moon landing. But the real story is how these aberrations erase Lucy’s sister from existence, or create a new timeline where Lucy is somehow engaged to a stranger. It’s a story about remembering a life that never happened, despite the fact that you were living it yesterday. There’s also the lingering temptation to change the past for your own will, as Wyatt continues to investigate the mysterious death of his wife. It’s these stories that tie all the fantastical elements together. Yes, the capers are a romp, but they also have real stakes: The people behind the tropes and the CGI. That’s the meat of what a time travel story can be, and Timeless isn’t afraid to tell it.
Timeless airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on NBC.