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Timeless: Don't Think Too Hard About NBC's New Time Travel Series

The time travel drama is silly sci-fi for non sci-fi fans

Kaitlin Thomas

If you're still smarting from the delay of Doctor Who but the complexities of Syfy's 12 Monkeysmakes your brain explode, NBC is offering an alternative to the timey-wimey dramas with this fall's Timeless.

The series, which follows a trio of unlikely heroes -- a historian, a soldier, and a scientist -- as they travel back in time in an attempt to stop a mysterious man on a nefarious quest to change the past, is a silly adventure series that sometimes equates to Science Fiction for Dummies. That isn't to say it's dumb (though it definitely kind of is) but rather that viewers won't need elaborate diagrams to keep timelines straight and they won't go cross-eyed trying to figure out the cause and effect of any given situation. To put it another way, it's sci-fi for people who don't like sci-fi, which means if you don't want to think too hard about the show, there is absolutely something enjoyable within. Unfortunately, that also means the series may not appeal to the viewers who would probably otherwise seek it out based on the genre alone.

Created by Eric Kripke (Supernatural) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield), the Timeless pilot resembles a product created by a network that wants to capitalize on a hot trend (in addition to the aforementioned Doctor Who and 12 Monkeys, Outlander, 11.22.63, The Flash and DC's Legends of Tomorrow also all involve time travel) without doing the necessary work to make it deeply engaging.

The show's first hour follows a quickly-assembled team that includes Lucy (Abigail Spencer), a history professor trying to live up to the legacy of her ailing mother, Wyatt (Matt Lanter), a trained Delta Force soldier grieving the recent loss of his wife, and Rufus (Malcolm Barrett), an engineer who helped to build the time machine that is stolen in the premiere by series antagonist Flynn (Goran Višnjić) for reasons that no one cares to explain but nonetheless serves as our jumping-off point.

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Matt Lanter, Malcolm Barrett and Abigail Spencer, Timeless

NBC, Joe Lederer/NBC

Each week the show will travel back in time to an important event in history -- the pilot visits the Hindenburg disaster while future episodes will depict the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the Alamo -- as the gang attempts to stop Flynn from altering the timeline for reasons he understands, probably. But outside of seeing the actors play dress up in period costume, Timeless doesn't seem particularly interested in exploring any of the historical events it depicts.

Lucy rattles off random dates and facts that can be found via a simple Google search like she just did said Google search while you weren't looking, and Wyatt seriously doesn't care about historical anachronisms if it means protecting himself with his gun. Meanwhile, despite a few pointed remarks in the pilot about how there is no point in American history that's going to be exceptional for Rufus as an African-American male -- a sad truth made even more sad when viewed through the lens of 2016 and the fact Rufus is likely also referencing his current timeline -- the show feels content to just breeze through the past without comment.

Of course, no one really expects Timeless to dig into the systemic problems plaguing our country or tackle the racism and sexism of the 1930s when characters can just argue about the prepackaged rules of time travel that seem to only exist as a lazy explanation for why the team doesn't just attempt to stop Flynn from stealing the time machine in the first place or, when the team inevitably fails during a mission, they can't just hit the reset button. But there is an argument to be made about how those who have a major platform and don't use it to inform as well as entertain are missing a major opportunity.

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Still, while the silliness and shallowness of Timeless will be frustrating for some, the series' most annoying trait isn't found in what's on-screen but rather what isn't, meaning the other side of time travel, the side that involves the unknown rather than the known. Either Timeless can only travel in one direction -- to the past -- or it has no desire to travel to the future, and a time traveler who doesn't bother to even attempt to travel to the future is the equivalent of ordering just a single sad taco on Taco Tuesday.

However, it appears Kripke and Ryan are only delivering what NBC asked of them. Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment, told reporters this summer at the Television Critics Association summer previews that the broad approach to Timeless and its narrative was by design. After hearing a number of time travel pitches over the years, she said NBC didn't want to "make [the show] too complex" and was not interested in digging "into the hard science of [time travel]." The result then is a procedural with just enough of a twist to allow the show to appear unique against a backdrop of other, more basic dramas.

On one hand, there's nothing inherently wrong with NBC's attitude, and it's entirely possible this will work in its favor because the repetitive set up each week means fans won't have to watch each episode to follow the majority of the plot. But on the other hand, this watered-down drama that threatens to fall apart if you think too hard about any one thing probably won't be enough to bring fans who require more from their TV shows, and more from their science fiction, back week after week.

Timeless premieres Monday, Oct. 3 at 10/9c on NBC.