Out of time: NBC’s ‘Timeless’ is a work in progress

By Jim Sabataso
Correspondent

Imagine you possessed a time machine. What would you do with such power? Would you kill Hitler? Save JFK? Invest in Microsoft? And what would be the repercussions of such meddling? These sorts of questions have been at the core of time-travel science fiction since the time of Jules Verne. NBC now gives us the latest installment of the canon with “Timeless.”

The series, created by Eric Kripke (“Supernatural,” “Revolution”) and Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”) imagines such a scenario, when a time machine is stolen by a terrorist who uses it to alter history. Goran Višnjić (“ER”) plays Garcia Flynn, the terrorist in question, whose murky motives prompt the U.S. government to send an unlikely team of heroes into the time stream after him.

The assembled team hits all the expected character tropes. There’s Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer, “Rectify,” “True Detective”), the knowledgable historian whose specialty is, apparently, all of history.

We also have Wyatt Logan (Matt Latner, “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” “90210”), the special-forces guy who gets to be handsome and brooding.

Finally, there’s Rufus Carlin (Malcolm Barrett), the resident time-machine pilot and engineer. Rufus is by far the most interesting character so far. And by that I mean he’s the only one who has anything resembling a personality. My generosity toward Barrett may be a holdover from his time on the excellent but underrated “Better Off Ted,” where he played sad-sack scientist Lem.

In the first two episodes, the team chases Flynn to the crash of the Hindenburg and assassination of Lincoln. In both cases, Flynn’s schemes are foiled, albeit events play out slightly differently due to meddling from both sides. In the future, those alterations to the timeline are only remembered by the time travelers; for everyone else, that’s how history happened.

In Lucy’s personal life, however, her time travel has had some major repercussions. Her younger sister now never existed, her terminally ill mother is alive and well, and she’s engaged to a total stranger.

It would seem that Lucy plays a central role in Flynn’s plan, and he tells her as much early on. Her role also complicates Flynn’s motives. He may be branded a terrorist, but there is something bigger at play that hints at shifting alliances as the series progresses.

The time-hopping nature of the series provides an opportunity to show off some creativity in costume and set design. Thus far the show has been dutiful in making things look accurate, but it has yet to pop in the way prestige period shows like “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey” and “Game of Thrones” do.

NBC hasn’t had great luck with the puzzle-box show. In the aftermath of “Lost” when every network was scrambling for the next big thing, it gave us aliens-among-us paranoia in “The Event,” which, unsurprisingly, didn’t live up to its name. It followed soon after with “Revolution,” a post-apocalyptic world where nobody had electricity except for those who did.

It doesn’t look like “Timeless” is going to break NBC’s losing streak. Time travel is a great concept, but it’s also complicated and messy, and difficult to pull off. The best examples — “Fringe,” “Quantum Leap,” “Doctor Who” — confidently leaned into the absurdity of the premise. The shows that faltered became too tangled up by rules, and didn’t believe their audiences were smart enough to keep up.

It’s too early to tell if “Timeless” is capable of achieving the headiness required to make itself interesting. Right now, it feels like a generic procedural drama with a time machine in the background. Like I said, the typically risk-averse NBC isn’t great at these sorts of shows. Still, “Timeless” could grow into something really interesting. Unfortunately, unlike its characters, the show does not have the luxury of time.

Check it out
“Timeless” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on NBC

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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