Timeless Premiere: Is NBC’s (Sorta-Diverse) Time Travel Drama Worth the Hype?

Timeless premiered on Monday! Know how I knew that? Because it feels like NBC has been advertising nothing but Timeless for weeks.

TV ads, giant webpage displays, you name it. For some reason, NBC seems very invested in me watching Timeless… Mondays at 10pm on NBC. So I figured, why not? I love history. I’m a pretty big fan of television. Might as well give it a try.

As the name implies, this is a television series about time travel. In the first episode, a terrorist steals a time machine, and the government enlists a history professor (Abigail Spencer) and a soldier (Matt Lanter) to go back and in time and retrieve it. Their trip features Nazis and the Hindenberg crash … exciting!

As mentioned, NBC has been advertising the crap out of this show … so for how excited I am to watch it, it’d better actually be good.

Like most network dramas, Timeless stars a male and female duo. Matt Lanter plays Wyatt, a gruff soldier recruited to hunt down the time-traveling terrorist, Flynn (Goran Visnjic), and thwart his evil plans of permanently altering the timeline of history for sinister and disastrous ends.

Wyatt

If star Matt Lanter looks vaguely familiar, its likely because he’s had a fairly successful career as the very attractive love interest on various CW teen dramas. You know the type: those 30 year old actors with faces and abs like Abercrombie models … who some TV costume department outfits with a backpack and hoodie, and then asks audiences to suspend reality and believe they’re just average 16 year old high school boys.

Most notably, Matt Lanter (33, then 31) romanced Aimee Teegarden in the CW’s Star Crossed, where he starred as a brave, chiseled, and all-around swoonworthy high schooler. (In preparation for Monday’s Timeless premiere, I dutifully marathoned all 13 episodes of Star Crossed. Partly to build excitement for Timeless. But mostly because I’ve had almost nothing to watch all summer, and I finally caved and signed up for Netflix.)

As the male lead in Timeless, Matt Lanter might be too pretty — but in a way that makes him almost forgettable. His gaze is too dreamy, his eyes are too blue, and he’s almost in too good of shape to look like a normal person. I mean, I get it: I shouldn’t be whining about this. His character is a soldier, and he’s the star of a network TV show. He’s supposed to be pretty. It’s just … expected.

Lucy

Rounding out Timeless‘ starring duo is Abigail Spencer. She plays Lucy, the whipsmart and adventurous professor, whose in-depth knowledge of the customs and culture of any given point in history will help their team blend in wherever they travel, and provide valuable knowledge of dates and locations crucial to tracking down and stopping Flynn.

This show is full of actors I recognize from previous roles. Hey Christopher from Gilmore Girls! Still a jerk in this show, too, I see. Or Love your new hair, Moira Queen from Arrow! And so glad to see you’re not dead. Every time I saw a promo leading up to the premiere, I knew that star Abigail Spencer looked familiar. But I could not place my finger on where I’d seen her before.

Tonight, I finally caved and just Googled her. Turns out she was on USA Network’s Suits … I show I tried very hard to like this summer. And failed miserably at doing so. (But I’m sorry, if your go-to storytelling approach is an overly dramatic bathroom scene: Closeup on water faucet, water running. Water stops. Hand turns off sink. Camera pans to two people in restroom. Air is quiet. Dramatic conversation ensues …. then I’m sorry, I just can’t. I tried to like Suits. For a long time. But it failed to progress beyond Dramatic Bathroom Sink Scene, so I eventually gave up.)

If you don’t share my Suits aversion and are familiar with the show, she played Scotty, Harvey’s longtime rival lawyer/love interest. And no surprise here: she’s really pretty.

So to recap: Both Wyatt and Lucy are beautiful … which I assume means they’ll soon display a decent amount of chemistry and eventually become romantically involved.

I’m sorry, but if Lucy and soldier guy end up falling in love, I might actually throw something. Nothing against them, but a Wycy (Luatt? Just kidding. They can’t get together. They’d have the worst mashup name in the world) romance would be the most obvious and expected plot decision this show could come up with.

It’d just be another case of pretty white people falling in love with pretty white people. Of the athletic, heroic guy slowly winning over the intelligent but stubborn woman who initially rebuffs him. I’ve seen those tropes play out so many times.

There has to be another way to tell a story, without falling back on the same tired, stereotypical characters. It’s unclear so far if Timeless is going to fall into that mold. I’ll cross my fingers and hope to not be disappointed.

Rufus

Also joining Lucy and Wyatt on their time traveling mission is a less Abercrombie model-looking, but very funny, sidekick Rufus (Malcolm Barrett) … whose primary purpose appears to be the comic relief of the series. And diversity. Because look, Timeless‘ two pretty white stars have a black friend! He’s not the star or anything crazy like that. But he’s totally there, and totally in every scene. Because diversity is super important on television, guys. Look at how important it is: they cast a black friend. And how many background and supporting characters are people of color!

Sarcasm aside, there are actually parts of Timeless‘ approach to race that I really appreciated. Sure, I would love to see them cast more people of color in actual leading roles. But the show’s portrayal of the experience of African American characters is much more grounded in reality than what you often see from the stock hilarious POC best friend.

When his British boss instructs him to join Lucy and Wyatt on their time-traveling mission, Rufus quickly retorts:

“I don’t know how it works across the pond. But I am black. There is literally no place in American history that would be awesome for me.”

This shouldn’t be such a novel concept. But in the grand scheme of things, it is. Someone is talking honestly about race on television. Do you know how often we do that? Hint: Not very much.

TV’s history of pretending race doesn’t exist

I just finished (because: Netflix) watching Hart of Dixie, a teen drama about a New York City doctor who moves to the South. Thanks to it’s location, that show is full of opportunities to discuss racism. Not necessarily in an after school special or let’s focus on a social issue format, but even in small ways … in casual conversation. Set in the (historically segregated) South, and featuring a mix of black and white actors, the subject of race is never mentioned. In four seasons. Not even once. Painful history, lingering tensions, cultural differences … it’s like they don’t exist. Race has been completely gutted from the narrative of a show whose Southern identity is key to the plot, and in the freaking title, of the show.

Most notably, Hart of Dixie‘s town has a black mayor who is repeatedly characterized as beloved by his entire community. Especially the white grandmas, who — given the climate of the South throughout their lifespan — would be more inclined to show distrust or hold preconceived notions about a black mayor. But they don’t. Everyone loves him. And for four full seasons, Hart of Dixie existed in a weird TV version of the south where race was represented in skin tone but otherwise completely absent.

For the most part, and especially on network TV, we don’t discuss race. Unless it’s in a show centered around people of color, or for a specific plot point (crime fueled by racism) or the show is trying to have a socially significant teaching moment.

Rufus’ I am black, there is literally no place in American history that would be awesome for me was just one line. But it spoke to something significant. Rufus, as a black man, articulated a fact of reality that POC understand, but that white viewers might never even think about.

As a white women, I wouldn’t have to question my safety when traveling to various points in U.S. history. American Revolution? Civil War? As long as I wasn’t wandering alone, I could expect to be perfectly safe in those time periods. No one would try to lynch me, kidnap me, sell me into slavery, or beat me to a bloody pulp simply for looking at a man the wrong way.

People of color have distinct experiences — unconscious bias, microaggressions, etc — that present a regular reminder that they are different, less valued, or misunderstood they are by various people they encounter. These are experiences that I, as a white woman, just don’t have. And these are experiences that are very rarely depicted on television shows.

Because they’re awkward. We don’t know how to talk about racism. It’s painful to bring up. We worry we won’t say the right thing, or that we’ll accidentally offend someone. So we wipe it from the conversation. We pretend it doesn’t exist. We create a reality free from race, while people of color continue to experience pain, hurt, and devaluing … in a system that refuses to acknowledge these things exist.

In Timeless, painful experiences aren’t gutted from the script. They’re not washed out of the show’s reality. And in a world full of headlines about police killing black men and presidential candidates promising to build walls on the Mexican border or outlaw entire religions … pretending that minorities don’t experience a different reality isn’t just the safe, less-awkward, less-controversial route. It’s a lie, and an increasingly more jarring one, given how the increasingly polarizing nature of the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and the national dialogue that goes along with them.

So Timeless: Is it worth all the hype?

NBC spent a pretty penny making sure Timeless cut through the noise and landed on our radar. If the network’s advertising budget is being well spent, this should be one of the stronger offerings this fall.

I finished the premiere episode — and watched the promo for the rest of the season — with plenty of excitement. Next week, they’re traveling to the Civil War era! (sorry, Rufus) and then to the 1920s, and then back to the Nazis again!

The outfits look fun. The time travel concept is intriguing … though following multiple timelines and keeping up with alternate versions of reality can often be a bit hard to follow. (Looking at you, Flashpoint. Why are you doing this to me?)

For all my concerns about stereotypical or expected characters in expected roles, Timeless has an intriguing concept and lots of potential for great action and exciting storylines.

Will Timeless live up to all the hype? That remains to be seen. It definitely has the makings of a great series. But to really make a name for itself in the fall TV landscape, Timeless would do well to ditch the expected tropes, and focus on creating authentic characters — and telling its exciting stories in nontraditional, flip-the-script ways.

 

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