Well, Timeless may know when it exists, but it doesn’t seem to know why.

With the pilot of Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke’s sci-fi-lite procedural, we get some good things. It’s a fairly entertaining 42 minutes, and briskly packs in exposition, world-building, and even a bit of mythology while still managing to crash the Hindenburg twice (and not crash it once). It has a few solid fights, some zingers, and some of the most charming performers television has to offer. It is, all in all, a completely acceptable hour of storytelling, and that’s just fine.

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What it lacks is substance, and that’s also okay. Not ideal, and not to everyone’s taste, but it’s just fine. No, the trouble is that Timeless seems to be, not aiming for, but feigning at something more profound, and that’s perhaps what’s most frustrating about the pilot. Be silly, if that’s what you’re going to be. Embrace the fluff. Then if moments of greater resonance surface, it’s just the cherry on top. But this in-between place, this tightrope of cultural relevance and wacky hijinks, of Alias-like mystery and the comfortingly familiar trappings of the procedural? This helps no one. It gets everyone=—the performers, the producers, the writers, the audience—stuck in the mud (unlike the ropes that anchored the Hindenburg, which were properly coiled).

It’s an understandable ambition, considering the woman at the center of the series. Television lovers rejoice, for Abigail Spencer is anchoring a network show, and joy should ring clear and bright throughout the land. Are Spencer’s considerable talents put to good use here? No, of course not. In this first episode, she’s saddled with establishing her character, Lucy, as a quirky-hip-plucky-but-sad-inside-history-teacher-with-mom-issues-and-boss-boyfriend in about six minutes. Then it’s on with a skirt from the 1940s and a blouse of inappropriate fabric, and off into history.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone creating a network-friendly procedural blessed with Spencer in the cast wouldn’t want to make it just a little bit smarter. She’s a seriously capable performer, able to do a lot with a little, and even more when she’s given great material. Still, Timeless is what it is, and when you’ve got Lucy telling a prickly, brooding fellow to stop calling her ma’am within minutes, the pretense that this is anything but paint-by-numbers becomes hard to maintain.

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To Ryan and Kripke’s credit, the brooder (actually called Wyatt Logan, and played by Matt Lanter) isn’t Lucy’s only companion, and Rufus (Malcolm Barrett) proves a much more interesting time-travel buddy. Like Spencer, Barrett’s saddled with some truly silly stuff (Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson…), but he also benefits from the one substantive element that actually works. Acknowledging the very real dangers to a person of color traveling in time may seem like a no-brainer, but not every show would bother. Frankly, most shows would probably avoid that problem by casting another white dude.

Yes, it’s a bit much sometimes, and seriously oversimplified. Still, Rufus’ declaration that there “is literally nowhere in history that would be awesome for me” manages the nifty trick of being both true and funny. Also promising: the show’s willingness to take an occasional light touch (the brief bus mention), and to at least indirectly acknowledge the privilege of others (Lucy’s advice to Rufus when they enter the bar is seriously cringe-inducing). Not everything Ryan and Kripke have laid their hands on has turned to gold, but they’re neither of them fools, and moments like those serve as reminders that they can really knock it out of the park when given the opportunity.

This doesn’t seem like that sort of situation. Hopefully, that’s an incorrect impression—flawed though it may be, Timeless has its charms, and the pedigree of those involved certainly means great things are possible—but there’s something here that smacks of too many cooks in the kitchen, of trying to be all things to all people. This isn’t Doctor Who, but nor is it Chicago Fire. It isn’t invested in its own weirdness, but it’s too weird to be run-of-the-mill. It’s not total fluff, but it isn’t prestige TV, either. So what is it, exactly? Timeless itself doesn’t seem to know.

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Stray observations

  • Hi! I’m Allison, and I’ll be in the Lifeboat with you for weekly TV coverage of Timeless. Looking forward to reading all your best Doctor Who jokes in the comments. (Spoilers.)
  • Of the several teases poked in here and there, I’m most interested in Rufus the spy and least interested in Wyatt’s deep dark sad stuff.
  • Why was no one concerned about the kidnapped doctor and supporter of Taco Tuesday, a man that IMDb tells me is named Anthony Bruhl? (More importantly, is it because they recognize him as Dr. Aldous Leekie and thus know he is up to no good?)
  • This show seems to have a lockdown on reliable supporting characters from other series. We’ve got Hiro Kanagawa (iZombie), Sakina Jaffrey (Mr. Robot), Paterson Joseph (The Leftovers)… anyone I skipped? Was that Susanna Thompson (Arrow)?
  • I’ll tell you who I skipped: David Sutcliffe—who is a fine actor and probably a very nice person but who will always be Christopher Hayden to me and thus will always be unwelcome—shows up as Lucy’s boss/paramour.
  • Just now realizing I went the length of the entire review without mentioning the antagonist. Sorry, Goran Visnjic, but sometimes opacity makes a character forgettable, rather than mysterious
  • Time-travel killjoy observation of the week: So, they can’t go back and try again because if you go to a place where you could meet your double, bad things happen. Right. So why don’t they just send back another history professor, another soldier, and another person who works for Mason? Feel free to add your own personal nerdy nit-picks below. I love ’em.

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