Timeless seems to have found its sweet spot.
In a mostly promising but decidedly uneven first season, Timeless has wandered all over the map, tonally speaking. In an earlier review, I described it as Alias meets Wishbone, and that’s a combination that’s a a bit of a mixed bag (though not a boring one). At its highest points, however, it managed to mostly dodge the Wishbone aspects (bad impressions and weird, back-of-the-head shots of famous people) as well the dicier Alias elements (brief hints of an undefined nefarious organization and intrigue for intrigue’s sake). There were still hiccups in hours like “Party at Castle Varlar,” “The Alamo,” and (more recently) “The Assassination of Jesse James,” but each had a certainty the other hours have lacked. They felt finished, even confident. Not perfect, but on the way to something solid.
“The Lost Generation” is the something solid to which this series has been heading since the pilot, and yet somehow, a show that seemed comfortably predictable (if odd) has landed somewhere that one would have been hard-pressed to predict. Sure, elements of those early episodes remain—we’ve still got a famous person of the week, and in this case, three—but as the landscape has shifted for its three leading characters, so has the show’s energy. They’re tired, but still maintain a sense of wonder. They’re desperate, but not without humor. They’re still wrestling with the notion of fate, but in a way that feels a lot less dour than it did before.
In other words, writers Kent Rotherham and David Hoffman (the show’s historian) created a script that’s both entertaining and efficient, a vehicle worthy of a cast that gets better week by week. Abigail Spencer, Matt Lanter, and Malcom Barrett get some solid company in “The Lost Generation,” as the Time Team (minus a Wyatt) encounter Ernest Hemingway (Brandon Barash), Charles Lindbergh (Jesse Luken), and Josephine Baker (Tiffany Daniels, so charismatic that viewers at home may feel every bit as starstruck and smitten as Rufus and Lucy). Best of all, another new arrival in the form of an NSA official (Jim Beaver of Deadwood) puts Agent Christopher on the outside, and it seems that the Time Team threesome might just be a foursome from now on.
If that’s the case, its the single most welcome development in an episode with no shortage of welcome developments. The fact that an actor of Sakina Jaffrey’s quality has spent so much of this season on the sidelines never made much sense. Now that she seems to have gone fully rogue (and brought the team with her), the glacially slow creep of her prominence seems deliberate, not wasteful. As the episode begins, all four characters are at a loss. By the end, they’re all armed with a certainty that both they (and the show) previously lacked. Mason Industries and Rittenhouse are wrong. Garcia Flynn is wrong. These four know what’s right, and they’re committed to stopping the others at any cost. That starts, if the preview is to be believed, by stealing the Lifeboat (again).
Curiously, while the story proves gripping enough—anything that includes a trip into the catacombs of Paris can’t be dull—in hindsight, it doesn’t matter all that much. This is an episode that changes the circumstances of all three of its main characters because of who they are, not what happens to them. So sure, Lucy tries to talk Lindbergh into stepping off the path Rittenhouse has paved for him, and yes, Flynn listens in and gets some vague but valuable information, but what actually matters is the conversation she has with the pilot, and what it tells her about herself. Yes, Rufus and Ernest Hemingway come back from puking in the alley and find Lucy missing, but the real point is the conversation the two have about fear and death. Wyatt escapes in a brief but surprisingly creepy fight, but the point of his stint in a blacksite is his discovery that he feels he’s meant to protect his friends, not save his wife. It’s a great plot, but it’s just the framework for the real substance, and that’s something new for Timeless.
There’s another element that resonates in a surprising way, and that emerges in Lucy’s brief scenes with Lindbergh and Baker and Rufus’s with Hemingway. Whether Rotherham and Hoffman set out to address, however obliquely, the reality of the Trump presidency and the greatly increased visibility of the “alt-right” matters little. (My guess is that they didn’t.) Really great writing can contain both unexpected resonances and deliberate yet subtle provocation all at once. Art speaks to all of us differently, but here’s how it spoke to me.
In January, we hit the point where scripted television caught up with the results of the 2016 election. (Black-ish, notably, nailed it.) In some cases, a story or series became unexpectedly more relevant (The Americans, Hulu’s upcoming The Handmaid’s Tale), while others found that the new reality changed their plans (the forthcoming spinoff of The Good Wife). With “The Lost Generation,” Timeless manages to stretch beyond its twisty quirky ethos. It makes times for masturbation jokes and stealing absinthe and a new bad guy, but it does so much more. It addresses the uncertainty of living in a world where certainty vanishes like quicksand and facts lose their solidity. It shows us how a misguided man can become a pawn in a terrifying game (“When you create a scapegoat, no one can know who’s really in control”). Perhaps most unexpectedly, it gives us a rousing speech from a drunk genius, and tells us that the fragility of life demands resistance.
Like all great works of science fiction, it says something about this moment, our past, and our future all at once—all while keeping the good yarn spinning. We’ve got two episodes left in the first season, with no word yet on renewal. If this is a sign of things to come, let’s hope NBC pulls that lever soon.
- Googling “Josephine Baker biopic” brought up a few articles of a rumored Rihanna project from 2013. The fact that such a film does not yet exist is a loss for humanity.
- Ernest Hemingway on Josephine Baker: “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”
- “Hemingway hook.”
- “They wildly and extravagantly suck.”
- “That is some antique porn, my friend.” “I prefer the term vintage.”
- Poor Bam Bam. As a friend put it, “he brought a 1927 gun to a time-travel fight.” That death was pretty much perfectly handled, as the reality of their situation stopped it from being really funny… even though it was just a little bit funny. Quite the balance to strike. The ma’am moment was nice, too.
- Lucy’s face when Cahill mentions her having kids was perfect, as was the subtle but horrifying moment when she saw the new journal. Abigail Spencer, a treasure as always.
- Some legitimately great writing here, feels like something a drunk Hemingway would say: “What are my choices? Give up, curl into a ball and die, or live and drink and fight and screw on behalf of those who can’t. So you can either stand there like a corpse or you can be a man, and fight.”
- Malcolm Barrett is very, very good at his job.