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Timeless: NBC explains the show's approach to history

The drama will explore issues of sexism and racism

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Joe Lederer/NBC

NBC’s new time travel series Timeless is ready to take on history, and that includes exploring the world’s dubious past.

The drama follows an unlikely trio — Lucy (Abigail Spencer), Rufus (Malcolm Barrett), and Wyatt (Matt Lanter) — who travel through time to battle a master criminal (Goran Visnjic) intent on altering the fabric of human history with potentially catastrophic results.

“It’s a really visceral, grounded attack on history and we don’t sugarcoat it,” executive producer Eric Kripke told reporters at the Television Critics Association’s press tour on Tuesday.

Highlighting the fact that the trio is made up of a female and an African-American, Kripke said the show will delve into racism and sexism throughout different decades. “So much of history as we know it is the history of rich white dudes, and yet there’s so much untold history from a minority perspective, from a female perspective,” Kripke explained. “We’re really looking for a door in to not just tell the iconic history that everyone’s heard before, but to tell a really exciting and fresh history that isn’t dusty and isn’t a school lesson, but is violent and exciting… and allows us to make commentary on issues that are happening today.”

Among the events the series will visit are the Hindenburg disaster, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, 1962 Las Vegas, the Alamo, Watergate, Germany during WWII, and the space race when the United States landed on the moon. “I don’t think we’re going to see the building of the pyramids,” EP Shawn Ryan said. “I don’t think we’re going back to Greek mythology. The farthest we go back to is the 1750s during the French-Indian war. We’ll go pretty far back, but I don’t think we want to end up in medieval castles or the Colosseum in Rome… yet. Talk to me in season 3.”

That’s part and parcel of not creating a convoluted timeline, and therefore a storyline that’s difficult to follow. The EPs liken the series more to Back to the Future and Quantum Leap than 12 Monkeys. “It’s important to Eric and I that this not be the kind of show that falls down a serialized rabbit hole,” Ryan said.

Part of keeping the storytelling in check comes in the rules of time travel on the show. For instance, the characters cannot return to a time in which they already exist. “That’s a really hard rule for our show,” Kripke said. “Frankly, it’s designed to keep a self-enclosed simplicity to it. They can’t redo the Hindenburg. Rather than always doubling back, and meeting doubles and triples of yourself, you always have to keep moving forward.”

The Hindenburg disaster plays a large role in the pilot, with the villain preventing the disaster only to cause a much larger one in a different incarnation, therefore causing a butterfly effect-like ripple that tweaks Lucy’s life in the present. “Any change that they are making, to put it bluntly, does start to pile up on each other,” Kripke said. “It’s not so much that you hit a reset button… If they’re not careful in episodes moving forward, they’re going to change more. In the pilot, there’s a pretty seismic change to history; that’s not going to happen in every episode. They have to start fighting to maintain things. [There’s] this seismic change in history, but it’s completely personal and emotional. That’s a pretty good model for how things will change in our show.”

In fact, the characters’ opinions will differ on that point, particularly when it comes to Lucy and Wyatt. “Should we keep it as-is or should we change things for the better?” Lanter teased.

As for the time machine that will take the crew on this journey, Kripke dismissed the notion that it looks like the CBS eye logo. “What we talked a lot about when we were designing the time machine in the pilot, for us it was really a tale of two time machines,” he said. “What we really wanted was a really slick, modern fantastic one that the antagonist steals, leaving our heroes with a piece of sh–. We talked a lot actually about the [difference] between Wall-E and EVE in the movie WALL-E, and I think that’s really reflected. The slick one is beautiful and is aesthetically really pleasing. The lifeboat is like the Millennium Falcon. It’s rusty… and unreliable on when it’s going to work or not. Because it’s the underdog, you root for it.”

Timeless debuts Monday, Oct. 3 at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.

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