‘Timeless’: Time Machine History Lessons

Ken Tucker

In Timeless, three contemporary heroes travel back and forth in time in a big round machine and witness things like the explosion of the Hindenburg and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, while searching for a villain — or at least they assume he’s a villain. A lot of the pleasure you get from this new show from producers Shawn Ryan (The Shield) and Eric Kripke (Supernatural) depends on how much you enjoy the time-travel genre.

The heroes are a trio brought together by the Department of Homeland Security. They consist of a history professor named Lucy (Abigail Spencer, who, based on her performance in Rectify, is worth following anywhere), a Special Forces soldier named Wyatt (Matt Lanter), and a scientist named Rufus (Malcolm Barrett, who’ll always be Lem in Better Off Ted to me). Their adversary is a mysterious man named Flynn, played by ERs Goran Visnjic, who has his own time-traveling method and whose purpose is vague but nefarious.

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The premiere episode introduces the heroic trio to us and to one another. They’re just starting out on this mission, and so just as they begin to learn about how time travel works in this TV universe, so do we. I have to admit, this genre is one of my least-favorite TV formats: I always cringe at how corny and convenient everything is in these scenarios. In the second episode, for example, a 19th century bartender talks to one of Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguards, who says it’s going to be an easy night, since the president is going to be at a theater watching a play. The bartender turns to his next customer — and who’s belly-up at the bar? “Ah, Mr. Booth!” the bartender exclaims. “When are we going to see you on the stage again?” Booth raises his glass in a toast and says, “Soon!” Oh, the irony! Oh, the obviousness of it all!

Timeless works in a lot of timely commentary via the characters of Rufus and Lucy, who in earlier eras, as a black man and a woman, are not treated well. Having made such sociopolitical points, the series is also free to become a potboiler adventure, with a lot of frantic searches for both historical figures who need protecting, and for Flynn, who’s out to cause mayhem. It’s strongly implied that Flynn has both a personal reason for what he’s doing, and that he’s working for a mysterious group of people or organization known only at this point as Rittenhouse — and thus will producers Ryan and Kripke build a little mythology into the show.

Time travel TV has a long history that includes cult favorites Quantum Leap and my own personal favorite, “Peabody’s Improbable History,” a cartoon that appeared in the 1960s show Rocky and His Friends.

I wish Timeless had more of Mr. Peabody’s puckish humor, but I guess that goes against the grain of Timeless, which wants to set up an atmosphere in which its noble characters can, as someone remarks in the pilot, “make your own future.” And as a new fall show airing opposite ABC’s drab new drama Conviction, Timeless may have a chance to visit many past eras and alter-yet-not-alter history.

Timeless airs Monday nights at 10 p.m. on NBC.