Review: NBC's 'Timeless' Is A Timely Take On History

9:02 AM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

Time travel seems to be all the rage on TV these days. Half of The CW's superhero lineup (The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow) involve leaping around in time as crucial plot points, and the other parts of this extended universe are affected by The Flash's timeline-creating "Flashpoint" shenanigans. 12 Monkeys remakes a classic time-travel TV series, while BBC's Doctor Who continues its 53 years of traveling through space and time. Into this crowded milieu comes NBC's new series Timeless, a surprisingly thoughtful and enjoyable drama with an attention to history that delights as much as its characters intrigue.

The premise of the show is blessedly simple and evokes an old-fashioned spy caper: a rogue agent named Garcia Flynn (a deliciously villainous-sounding name) steals a time machine and goes back in time with the ostensible goal of destroying America by wreaking havoc on its history. And, as always, we assemble a crack team of misfit geniuses to set off in pursuit: quirky, ambitious Lucy, a history professor tasked with preserving historical timelines; wry, damaged Wyatt, the soldier designated to take out Flynn who is haunted by past tragedy; and capable, kind Rufus, a technician who pilots the ship and whose loyalties are forcibly divided.

What sets this show apart is that, unlike many of its time-traveling cousins, it revolves around characters who are utterly ordinary aside from their intelligence or training. This means the show is capable of focusing more on history and characters, rather than on the flashy high-concept that gets old fast. One of the most delightful aspects, in fact, is that the series chooses to focus on historical figures who aren't on the front lines, meaning we get to know them as people without the baggage of existing impressions. Instead of focusing on Lincoln, the episode is connected to his son's perspective; instead of JFK being the target, it is his mistress who can affect history. By taking this approach, the series takes a more human perspective, forcing us to see history as merely a different group of people who lived and breathed and felt like us, rather than immovable, unknowable figures. Granted, this does result in unintentional giggling when the show goes out of its way to keep the major figures on the sidelines: President Lincoln looks like he belongs in a re-enactment at a tourist attraction, while we only ever see the back of JFK's head. It's imperfect, but not too distracting.

Because of this human focus, the series gives us the chance to learn about our characters by how they react to history and to each other. Lucy is all about believing history is rated, until some small butterfly effect causes her to return to a timeline in which her beloved sister was never born. She still clashes with Wyatt, however, who is tormented with guilt over his wife's death. The inevitable episode where Wyatt and Lucy give into their sparkling tension, only to miraculously find his wife alive somehow, can't be far off, but the build of their relationship on both emotional and intellectual grounds is enough to keep my attention.

Likewise, their relationship with Rufus lends yet another perspective: if Wyatt is laser-focused on capturing Flynn and Lucy is obsessed with preserving historical events, Rufus takes the most human view. As a black man, he bluntly states that no time in history has been a picnic for people like him, and he struggles with knowing he cannot change that, although he has the series's best speech to date, a funny and powerful takedown of a police officer who condescends to him while in jail in the past.

He is an interesting paradox: apparently spying on his comrades for his vaguely amoral boss, yet he is the most loyal character: refusing to give up on a past mentor who has apparently betrayed them, and declaring his willingness to do the same for Wyatt and Lucy.

The hallmark of this show, despite its title, is its emphasis on history, not time-travel. Timeless doesn't waste time or energy explaining the sci-fi junk - which, granted, can leave a few frustrating plot holes, such as why history only seems to change enough to affect Lucy's life and nothing else. But instead, it is concerned in a quiet way with what (and who) makes history and with the ways we all react to history. Some of us are Rufus: frustrated by history and our inability to fix what went wrong. Some are Wyatt: cynical about history, certain that nothing is fated and focusing solely on what we can control. And some of us - and I admit, this is where I fall - are Lucy: full of endless wonder, yet with the slight hint of sadness and understanding that history is flawed because history is human. And that, ultimately, is Timeless in a nutshell: flawed, but oh so human.

I'll keep watching, and you should too. Join me Mondays at 10/9c on NBC!