The creators of Timeless have obviously thought about the nature of time a lot. That’s not just in the sci-fi existential sense that would be required of any time-travel story like this one, but in the TV-production sense of how to keep an audience entertained: NBC’s new show about cops and criminals who zap between the present and the past itself zips along with the merciless efficiency of, well, an expertly made network procedural. Which gives rise to plenty of eye-roll-worthy moments—but also allows the show to successfully deliver the philosophical sugar rush that has made time travel one of the most persistent fiction narratives in history.
Abigail Spencer plays the college professor Lucy, roped into a Homeland Security operation mostly against her will and against logic itself—“You’ve got a hell of a reputation: history, anthropology, you’re world class,” the presiding officer Denise (Sakina Jaffrey) explains to her, an unintentionally comic moment of the need for plot movement outpacing the needs of convincing storytelling. Whatever: Get on with the Sliders stuff! The enigmatic zillionaire Mason Lark (Paterson Joseph) has built a time-travel machine but the terrorist Garcia Flynn (Goran Višnjić) has hijacked it for unknown ends. Now, Lucy must team up with the dashing, impulsive special-forces trooper Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter) and the jittery, idealistic scientist Rufus Carlin (Malcolm Barrett) to follow Fynn and stop him from messing with the past to cause catastrophes in the present.
Destination No. 1: May 6, 1937, the date of the Hindenburg explosion. Each Timeless episode opens with a History Channel-like re-enactment of the topical event, and so the pilot begins with a blandly handsome staging of the small coincidences that led to a big boom—“oh, the humanity”—over Manchester Township, New Jersey. The real fun begins when Lucy’s crew arrives and goes through the checklist of time-traveler’s snafus: not quite nailing the period lingo, yearning for conveniences that have yet to be invented, noting eerie premonitions of the future, using their modern tools to surmount antique obstacles, grappling with heady ethical dilemmas, and facing the prejudices of the past.
It’s the last two challenges that make for the most compelling material of the two episodes I’ve seen, which is perhaps surprising given that a show like this is pitched at the broadest audience possible. “I am black, there’s literally no place in American history that would be awesome for me,” Rufus says, and Timeless leans into that fact that not merely by highlighting racism. Episode two is about the murder of Abraham Lincoln, and Rufus seriously considers breaking with the time-traveler’s code to prevent the assassination so as to possibly give black people a brighter future than the one that they’d been dealt in America’s extant timeline. Lucy acts as the guardian of history against such impulses, knowing their consequences could be unintentionally horrific—but even she feels drawn to the idea of intervening in the country’s darkest moments.
The show deftly highlights the dangers of doing so by having the premiere end on a deeply unsettling note, with the Butterfly Effect taking a bittersweet toll on one character’s life. It reminded me of the wrenching sequence in Interstellar where Matthew McConaughey’s character realizes he’s been made two decades distant from his own family, though there are parallels across the genre, from Back to the Future to About Time. All episode long we’d been told the stakes were high for the fate of the world, but the twist is that the stakes are also enormous for the characters themselves—we’re all products of history.
It’s a smart move to add in the potential for relatable poignance, given that Timeless otherwise often comes off as a cartoonish entertainment machine. Coincidences pile on coincidences, and seemingly smart characters make inexplicably careless decisions. No one should be shocked that early on the heroes face a literal ticking time-bomb scenario, and like all well-executed ticking time-bomb scenarios, the results are as suspenseful as they are preposterous. It’s like time-travel narratives in general: Build ‘em right, as NBC has done here, and you’ll have a blast.