NBC's Time-Travel Caper 'Timeless' Is Your New Guilty Pleasure
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The pilot episode of Timeless, debuting tonight on NBC at 10pm ET, opens with a special-effects-heavy staging of the Hindenburg disaster, but the show really begins with a dick joke.
The line arrives as crowds of men swarm across mud-covered grass holding ropes, members of the press fawn in eager anticipation of the ill-fated Zeppelin, and a very serious-looking title card informs us that it's May 6th, 1937 -- an ominous date for anyone who paid attention in history class. "Can you believe something this big actually flies?" asks a scruffy sailor to a plucky young female reporter. "Men," says the reporter, shaking her head. "Always obsessed with how big something is."
It's a true groaner and an awkward opening to the series -- especially because we're about to watch people die in a big explosion -- but it effectively signals what makes Timeless a spry anomaly in the current television landscape.
Last night, HBO aired the first episode of Westworld, a riveting and psychologically rich science-fiction series about a robot theme park that also arrives with a much-discussed $100 million price tag. To put it in aviation terms, it's serialized storytelling as blimp-making. Yet Timeless, which was created by Shawn Ryan (The Shield) and Eric Kripke (Revolution), is more like a scrappy bomber jet. Half the fun of watching the pilot is in watching Ryan and Kripke, two experienced television writers, make this thing fly through sheer elbow grease, tenacity, and, yes, dick jokes.
After the Hindenburg opening, Timeless jumps back to the present, where we meet history professor Lucy Preston (Rectify's Abigail Spencer), the type of cool and brilliant teacher who entertains her students with stories about LBJ whipping out his genitalia, which apparently he called his "jumbo." (Again, not kidding about the dick jokes.) After that, we meet her boyfriend, who works as an administrator at the college and says ominous, pilot-mandated things like, "We have news from the tenure committee. You're not going to like it." He doesn't even get to make a jumbo joke before we're whisked off to Lucy's home, where we meet her podcast-hosting spark plug of a sister and her Snickers-loving comatose mom.
Then, just as we're getting settled into this family life, we see the impeccably named bad guy Garcia Flynn (ER veteran Goran Višnjić) steal a time machine, which suspiciously resembles the CBS logo, from a science lab that was about to celebrate Taco Tuesday, one of the other quirky lines of dialogue the show tries to cram into an otherwise feverish series of expository exchanges. Keep in mind: everything I've described so far -- the Hindenburg, the college lecture, the scene at the home, and the theft of a time machine on Taco Tuesday -- takes place in less than seven minutes of screen time. You might even say Timeless wastes no… goddammit... time.
From there, our brilliant professor Lucy gets recruited to serve as the history expert on a mission to chase the bad guy through time and stop him from committing whatever bad things he planned with his similarly dressed goons. A nerdy technician named Rufus (Malcolm Barrett) and a vaguely Paul Rudd-looking military man (Matt Lanter) will join her on her trips through time. It's up to the three of them to rush off to the past and stop Garcia Flynn from changing history, but they must follow a few rules: you can't travel forward into the future, you can't meet your past self, and you absolutely cannot change the past.
Do they go back to the Hindenburg? Of course they do. Do things go wrong? Yes. Do they change the past? Very obvious spoiler alert: the answer is a jumbo-sized yes. Everything that you think will happen in Timeless happens in Timeless: the professor discovers that she might have a secret connection to the dashing Garcia Flynn, the military dude pines for his dead wife, and the technician has to report to his shady corporate bosses at the episode's end. All these tantalizing, serialized conflicts are doled out perfectly at the close of the episode to keep you tuned in next week -- a secretive organization called Rittenhaus is also mentioned multiple times -- while the ending suggests that Lucy and her team will be chasing Garcia Flynn into different historical periods for as many era-of-the-week episodes as the ratings let her.
In many ways, Timeless is a joyful and goofy throwback to a pre-prestige TV era: it has less in common with Westworld the TV show than it does with Westworld the movie. Its lack of narrative ambition doesn't make it bad: slightly cheesy but entertaining shows like Sliders, Voyagers!, and Early Edition entertained sci-fi fans for years. None of those shows are classics, but they were fun, clever, and an effective way to spend a couple hours.
For a brief period in the mid-'00s, serialized dramas like Lost, 24, and Friday Night Lights straddled the line between accessible network fare and more narratively daring cable shows, picking up critical acclaim and loyal viewers in the process. At least in the pilot, Timeless doesn't straddle anything. It feels smaller than something like Fringe or the countless other sci-fi shows that arrived in Lost's wake. Instead, Timeless affirms a valuable lesson all TV viewers could stand to remember as budgets balloon and episode run-times expand beyond the hour mark: size doesn't always matter.
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