There are two time machines in “Timeless” which is handy since a history professor, a scientist and a soldier have to use one to stop a mysterious criminal who stole one. His plan is to travel to various points in the past in order to destroy the present. Why? Well, that’s where the mysterious part comes in. It’s one of a few questions this show doesn’t quite answer. Another one is why he seems to narrowly escape capture every single episode. “Timeless” has an interesting premise but one that is not living up to its potential.
Professor Lucy (Abigail Spencer), scientist Rufus (Malcolm Barrett) and soldier Wyatt (Matt Lanter) are the trio tasked with apprehending Garcia Flynn (Goran Visnjic), referred to only by his last name. Flynn is surprisingly hard to catch despite the fact that the team always finds him and in many episodes, interacts with him. It’s a suspension of disbelief that has worn out quickly. Even Scooby and the gang caught the bad guys.
The endless Flynn escapes aside, the show’s presentation of history as a series of fun facts is … sort of fun? In a Rat Pack era Las Vegas episode, we learn that Las Vegas was known as “Atomic City” because of the amount of nuclear bomb test detonations exploding in the desert and that JFK had a mistress who also kept a mob boss company. Interesting but there’s an opportunity to dive a little deeper. “Timeless” doesn’t have to be the History Channel but when the show depicts the past as little more than costume changes and one sentence of a Wikipedia entry, it loses the chance to make it come alive in a meaningful way.
Another lost chance is the show’s choice to simplify identity politics rather than present a thoughtful perspective. Rufus, who is African American, notes that he is invisible in 1962 and in earlier historical settings, he is relegated to being a lookout. In the Las Vegas episode, Lucy gets hit on when she poses as a waitress. A more interesting choice would be to explore these issues beyond a line or two.
The actors are likeable, particularly Barrett who plays Rufus with an earnest geekiness that has its charms. Unfortunately, Visnjic seems wasted as a villain whose motivations are so hidden that he might as well have none. The job has very personal consequences for Lucy but there isn’t enough story time devoted to them for Spencer to make the audience care very much. To the writers’ credit, they give Wyatt a tragic backstory that allows Lanter to do more than play a “just following orders”-type of character.
The show has a playfulness about it, the characters will often comment on their unbelievable situation, but a few funny lines may not be enough to make it stand the test of time.
“Timeless” is on Mondays at 10 p.m. on NBC.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.