The premise of “Timeless,” NBC’s latest drama, is reminiscent of another work of fiction — only the latter is a children’s book, recommended for ages 7-10. Called “Magic Tree House,” it chronicles the tales of two ordinary children on their extraordinary adventures through time to save the past. “Timeless” basically does the same thing, but in the place of sweet innocent children are three adults with real adult problems and dark secrets.
Travelling through time to save the past is far from a novel concept. In fact, a simple Wikipedia search reveals that on television alone, there are 180 series which can be categorized in the “time travel” genre. The oversaturation of this premise in film, television and fiction makes it hard to believe that anyone is really itching for more. Yet here “Timeless” is, every Monday night at 10 p.m. on NBC.
If a new time travel show is given a primetime slot on network television, the assumption is that it should be good enough to stand out from the 179 others that have come before it. On a surface level, the show satisfies the criteria necessary to make a success: an attractive male/female duo, suspense, a clear villain, spectacle and lots of unearthed secrets. The characters are constantly in life or death situations, be it saving the Hindenburg from its untimely end or reversing the future consequences of an ever-changing past.
It’s a fun concept, travelling to a new place in time each week to save the fate of America. The season previews promise a visit to Watergate, the Alamo, even the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. And as the pilot episode proves, the protagonists might not succeed in fully preventing the past from changing. Everyone, at one point or another, has wondered what things would be like if x or y hadn’t happened. With “Timeless,” few of those hypotheticals will be realized.
The biggest problem with “Timeless” is not the plot, but the characters. For struggling history professor Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer, “Mad Men”), an adventure to the past arrives just in time. Her partners, Master Sergeant Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter, “90210”) and engineer Rufus Carlin (Malcolm Barrett, “Better Off Ted”), come with enough dark secrets and sketchy plans to fill out the team. All three are predictably unpredictable in their actions throughout the pilot. There’s nothing surprising about Wyatt deviating from the Hindenburg mission to rescue beautiful reporter Kate Drummond (Shantel VanSanten, “Final Destination”) from her fate, in spite of the potential catastrophic consequences. Everyone knows that one small change in the past can alter the entire future. It’s obvious. Even “Magic Tree House” points that one out.
“Timeless” is the kind of show audiences can really get behind, if they can root for the characters. As of now, however, the only character with any kind of personality is Rufus. He tackles the (very real) challenge of being a Black man sent back in time, where his societal role would most certainty not be an engineer, with humor and impassioned speeches. This can hopefully be used as a way for the show to move past its current state of sexy melodrama to a place of truth. The unimaginable challenge of a free, educated and respected Black man forced to regress to a time of outward hate is fascinating to see imagined on network television, for millions of viewers. If anything can get viewers invested emotionally, it’s this.
“Timeless” has many challenges ahead of it, which go beyond picking a period-appropriate blouse. It’s not a bad show, by any means. The disappointing part of “Timeless,” however, is that it’s just a show. Sooner or later, it will simply join the Wikipedia page of “time travel television” as an addition to a list. For a time travel program to continue past the present, it has to be unique, and currently, “Timeless” is not.