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After its second episode, it’s easier to say what Timeless isn’t than what it is. Things Timeless is not: subtle, consistent, self-aware, profound, logical, as smart as it thinks it is. But there are two other things Timeless is not, and that’s true even, and perhaps especially, of its very worst scenes. Timeless isn’t boring, thank the lord. And better still, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

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If that sounds like damning with faint praise, that’s a little bit true. Most of what was a problem in the first episode remains an issue here. Comically oversimplified philosophical arguments, check. Coincidences several leagues past convenient, check. A wildly inconsistent tone, check. Oldsy-timesy characters that feels like they walked right out of some animatronic Disney ride, check. But despite all that, and despite the fact that some of it got worse — that’s got to be one of the most groan-inducing opening sequences in the history of television — this was still an improvement on the last episode. There’s a simple reason: it seemed like someone, somewhere, was having fun.

Sometimes that person was me. Let’s get this out of the way: the opener, in which a bartender gabbed with John Wilkes Booth before the latter did his whole “sic semper tyrannis” bit, was terrible. Clearly, the show wanted to put Booth’s vainglorious tendencies front and center, but the result felt more like a reenactment on Unsolved Mysteries (or perhaps Definitely Solved Mysteries). The blood on the flag! The ham-fisted dialogue! The music! It went right past bad and into so-bad-its-good. For some, this writer included, that isn’t a bad place to be. Pass the damn popcorn.

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But it didn’t stay in that lousy place, because someone seems to have loosened the lid of the ketchup bottle, and suddenly the show feels like it’s got a life force of its own. Timeless still doesn’t seem to know what kind of show it is, but unlike last week, most of those shows were pretty entertaining. There’s the Timeless about people who are bad at time-traveling, and that remains fun. There’s also the Timeless about confronting the complex nature of history, and that’s still overly simplistic, but less so: not “let’s save this one woman,” but “let’s try to avert a tragedy that affected millions of lives for years to come,” and not “no, but the timeline!” but “no, but easier said than done.”

Well, perhaps the Timeless that’s about a secret, shadowy group pulling the strings and maybe led by some rich interfering asshole might still be dull. Lost wasn’t the first show to try it, and it won’t be the last, but man, it would be nice to see a genre show that doesn’t go out of its way to create its very own DHARMA Initiative. Hooking audiences with an elusive central mystery is all very well and good, but it’s not always easy to pull off, and if the audience isn’t engaged with the characters, it’s just a waste of time. Well, this is a case in point. Rufus spying doesn’t matter. Why he’s spying doesn’t matter. What Garcia Flynn has to say doesn’t matter. There’s no reason to care yet, and every moment spent on that mess just takes away from the other, much more entertaining mess.

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This Lincoln episode was never going to be a knockout. You’re going to take us to Ford’s Theater in episode two? Really? Steven Spielberg didn’t even do that, and his Lincoln was just a part of a Presidential debate. Still, writer Lana Cho mostly gets the job done, largely by focusing on Robert Todd Lincoln, rather than on the historical figures who loom the largest. Yes, Lucy meets Robert through one of those dreadful coincidences, but the connection gives Abigail Spencer the chance to respond with something other than wonder to her surroundings (though she does that very well). Couple a lifelong Lincoln nerd’s reverence with the knowledge that she’s befriended the man’s son and letting “the late, great Abraham Lincoln” die suddenly seems a lot less straightforward.

Lucy’s story took center stage this week, what with her disappearing sister and mystery fiancé and front-row seat to a Presidential assassination, but it’s not the only show in town. After a surprisingly effective shoot-out between the pod people and Booth’s conspirators, now armed with semi-automatics thanks to Flynn, Rufus gets to dig a bullet out of Wyatt’s side, a scene that affords the latter more personality in five seconds than the series has given him in total thus far. That’s far from Rufus’s only trial this week, though his other primary storyline — an encounter with a group of African-American Union soldiers — only worked intermittently. Moments sparked, but mostly the entire plotline felt both shoehorned in and greatly rushed. Friends to foes in an instant, then back again, with each point far too convenient and likely nowhere near as resonant as intended.

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Reading over this review, it seems pretty negative. That’s fair, but it’s also not a full picture of the experience of watching this particular episode. There were moments of genuine pathos, most due to Spencer, whose moments of terrified silence were more stirring than all the pageantry combined. There was that unexpected shootout, which was genuinely surprising and even a little suspenseful. There were some terrific moments scattered throughout, and a few stretches of playful dialogue that hint at a much more energetic show hiding beneath all the nonsense. There was also this line, which captures both the bad and the so-bad-its-good in one fell swoop:

“What about my wife? ‘Cause by your logic, you’re saying that bad things, like my wife’s death, are meant to be. So you wouldn’t use the time machine to save her either?”

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So, yes, it can be pretty bad. Still, nothing was more nonsensical than that opening, and I haven’t been so entertained by something so bad in a long time. What a mess of a show. t’s not anything close to great, but somehow it’s still easy to look forward to the next installment. What a trainwreck. Isn’t it fun?

Stray observations

  • There is only one person who should ever play John Wilkes Booth, and his name is National Treasure Victor Garber.
  • Among the tiny moments I liked so much? The paperweights, first as a clever, self-referential throwaway line, then as an oddly captivating image near the episode’s conclusion.
  • Among big moments I liked: the revelation about Lucy’s parents, particularly how it was handled. Glad that Claudia Doumit actually had something to do this week.
  • Among big moments I didn’t like: creepo mystery fiancé.
  • “So this is like Donnie Wahlberg assassinating the President?”
  • “We’re 1000% sure we can’t just shoot this ass-hat?”
  • Last week, Abigail Spencer’s wide-eyed wonder only sort of worked. This week, perhaps because it’s Abraham Lincoln, it felt totally honest and relatable.
  • Speaking of that, I can’t be the only Lincoln nerd who watched. Was it as alternately frustrating and fun for you? I love that they at least attempted some historically accurate but odd details — Edwin Booth saving Robert’s life, Lincoln’s bodyguard at the bar, Booth’s leg breaking — but much of it felt so forced, like they were trying to make sure they didn’t get roasted on History Twitter.
  • I have had entirely too much of men, to put it mildly, invading women’s personal space. When Flynn grabbed Lucy’s wrist I said some very impolite things to my television.
  • What was up with that guy Wyatt was fighting at the end? It was like he was facing off with the big Shark or some other meta-human from The Flash.
  • Time-travel killjoy observation of the week: How is it possible that no one is concerned that one of these trips in time will result in Conor Mason never inventing time travel? And what, exactly, makes the people in the lab decide to send them back to stop Flynn if Flynn succeeds, thus eliminating the need for him to take the trip at all?

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