Depending on your feelings toward time travel, “Timeless” will either immediately hook you or immediately lose you.
Writers and executive producers Eric Kripke (“Supernatural”) and Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”) make a choice appreciated by this exposition-weary viewer in that the series’ actual time travel is conducted without much explanation. The A-team is assembled quickly, thrown in an orb with rotating rings and sent back to make sure the Hindenburg does, in fact, explode in a fiery blaze sure to be referenced for decades to come.
Granted, we get a brief, folding-paper explanation of time travel, but overthinking it, let alone over-explaining it, is never an issue. In theory, this would provide NBC’s new drama the time it needs to better highlight its characters or inject some fun into the quickly-developing “end of the world as we know it” scenario. Instead, it’s just an excuse to get to as many historical events as possible.
So, no matter how you feel about time travel, “Timeless” soon falls prey to an easily digestible episodic structure that — despite the best efforts of its cast — carries less charm, thrills and general fun than your average hour of “Chicago Whatever.”
Meet Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer), a history professor in high regard who’s pulled from her comfy life in academia to live what she’s spent her life studying. Paired with a military man (Matt Lanter) chosen for undisclosed (or even hinted at) reasons and a “coder” (Malcolm Barrett) chosen for a very specific yet unknown purpose, the trio are sent back in time to stop a madman (Goran Visnjic) from screwing with history.
With a such a simple premise thrust instantly upon them (and us), “Timeless” only needs to get a few things right to prove worth tracking beyond the pilot: The cast chemistry needs to be electric, and the many who, how and why questions surrounding this barebones premise must be intriguing. At best, only half of these objectives are completed.
Starting with the well-chosen star, Abigail Spencer is far from the problem with “Timeless.” The beloved “Rectify” and “Mad Men” actress makes the most of a character saddled with rapidly changing responsibilities, and does her part to create romantic sparks with Lanter’s overly-hushed Wyatt and Barrett’s overly-anxious Rufus. She’s the straight man in a show that needs her to make up for the lack of eccentricity elsewhere, which doubly hurts for an audience who knows what she’s capable of. (We’d settle for brief moments of the insane charm she showcased at this year’s Emmys.)
Triple that pain when you throw in the lack of urgency within the series’ core mysteries. We get a few twists and turns tossed into the pilot [mild spoilers ahead] — “Why was Rufus chosen for the missions?” “Who is this Flynn guy?” “How does he know Lucy?” “And how does the whole adventure relate to a reasonably-priced rye whiskey?” — but none of them feel like they matter that much, especially when considering how much they should matter to these characters.
Moreover, with pertinent issues about race consciously raised as Rufus visits America’s various stages of repression (he tries to help enslaved Civil War soldiers in Episode 2), “Timeless” could have used its deliberate disregard for time travel mechanics to take a serious look at historical issues still plaguing us today. Perhaps that would have made the show’s secrets more urgent, and it certainly would’ve made up for any lack of levity. Yet it only half-asses those discussions, favoring a blend of light and heavy issues meant to cater to everyone instead of telling a story specific to anyone.
After two episodes, the resulting impression is ambivalence. Without anything strong to latch onto, “Timeless” is adrift in a sea of medium feels, none pressing enough to justify continuing the journey. Well, none but Abigail Spencer. (But we can wait for “Rectify.”)
NBC airs new episodes of “Timeless” every Monday at 10pm.