On television this fall, the past is present.
“Why are there so many time travel TV shows?” is the obvious question nobody’s asking. There’s Timeless on NBC, Frequency on the CW, Time After Time coming soon to ABC. They join Legends of Tomorrow, 12 Monkeys, Outlander, and the dormant-yet-omnipresent Doctor Who. In this summer’s 11/22/63, James Franco tried to save John F. Kennedy. On the second episode of Timeless, Abigail Spencer tries to save Abraham Lincoln. Will no one rescue James Garfield? Won’t someone please think of William McKinley?
But it’s not hard to explain this trend. Who doesn’t want to leave this current moment for another, escape right now for literally whenever? This has been a great year for feeling miserable. Turmoil in our cities. Chaos in our political system. Celebrities dying, and worse, divorcing. This would seem an ideal time to retreat into a glorious past – or even better, to skip ahead to a happier future. This is the modern American rift, maybe: Do you think everything used to be better, or do you believe everything will finally get better eventually?
Our entertainments offer no hope in either direction. Utopian dreams for a better tomorrow long ago gave way to fantasies of the glorious apocalypse. The Walking Dead franchise thrills a massive audience with a vision of all-consuming nihilistic consumption: zombies, warlords, and Chris Hardwick. The most acclaimed blockbuster of recent vintage is Mad Max: Fury Road, where a monstrous old man with multiple wives and unconvincing hair wages war on women with the help of his idiot son.
The pop-culture future is a battleground. And the past is disputed territory. Last year’s brilliant Show Me a Hero and this year’s glorious People v O.J. Simpson threw ice-cold rain on the internet’s neverending millennial-nostalgia parade. The former was an underrated David Simon tragedy of bureaucracy; the latter was a live-action cartoon, a soap-opera-of-ideas with 17 great performances and Cuba Gooding Jr. On those two shows – and on ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America, and last year’s invigorating hip-hop propaganda Straight Outta Compton – the late ’80s and early ’90s become the proxy battleground for the 2010s, a moment of political rioting, racial strife, and all the other important stuff that curiously never made it onto Full House.
There’s a great Louis CK gag about time travel: “A black guy in a time machine is like, ‘Hey, anything before 1980, no thank you, I don’t wanna go.'” Is it possible that the whole genre of time-travel fiction is shortsighted, privileged, embarrassingly un-woke? You start to rethink something like Back to the Future, where the worst thing about 1955 is the lack of readily available plutonium. (Certainly, you rethink something like Back to the Future Part 2, where Marty first realizes he’s in a twisted alternate-timeline dystopia when he discovers his family home inhabited by what the Futurepedia gracelessly calls “an unnamed African-American family.”)
Credit NBC’s Timeless for at least trying to grapple with the deeper social implications of hopping backwards into America’s past. In the show’s pilot, mysterious villain Garcia Flynn (Goran Visnjic) steals a time machine. A government-corporate alliance assembles a power-trio squad of time travelers to chase him. There’s Lucy, a historian, played by Abigail Spencer. There’s Wyatt, a grieving soldier, played by Matt Lander. And there’s Malcolm Barrett as Rufus, a technician-nerd who operates the time machine.
Barrett was so funny on Better Off Ted, and Rufus could be this show’s comic relief – although, on shows like this, “comic relief” is usually a synonym for “actual recognizably human person who isn’t a widowed super-soldier or a brilliant chosen-one protagonist.” As it happens, Rufus is African-American. They want him to travel through time? “There’s literally no place in American history that will be awesome for me,” he explains. It’s a funny line, with real resonance: Is he talking about the 19th century – or the 21st?
In our heroes’ first adventure, they follow Flynn back to the day the Hindenberg crashed. Problem: The Hindenberg doesn’t crash. What gives? Is the bad guy’s evil plan to save the Hindenburg? And, next question: Does that mean that the good guys have to destroy it? In the second episode, the squad lands on April 15, 1865, mere hours before the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Should they save the president? And if they don’t, are they somehow indirectly responsible for the failures of post-Civil War Reconstruction?
Some of this is boilerplate time-travel philosophy, which means a lot of it is silly. But the show can personalize the big ideas. In the Lincoln episode, Rufus meets a black Union soldier: a former slave, planning to move south and start farming his 40 acres with his mule. Rufus wants to steer the man north and save him a lifetime of trouble. Would that alter the space-time continuum? Does that matter? Here’s a brutal concept for a lighthearted adventure show: to fix the present, should our heroes make sure the past stays broken?
Rufus is unquestionably the most interesting character on the show. Lucy carries all the exposition and the mysterious-family mythology; Wyatt’s the blandsome action hero with a sad-sack backstory. In genre-TV terms, she’s Jack and he’s Kate; that means Rufus gets to be Sawyer, Hurley, even a little bit Ben Linus.
Example: In the Hindenburg episode, the gang gets captured, put in a jail cell. To distract a police officer, Rufus yells a list of famous African-Americans from future history: Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson. He mentions O.J. Simpson: “He gets off! He did it! We didn’t care!” There’s a galaxy of complex thought in those three sentences; it makes you think of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant summation of the Simpson trial, that O.J.’s greatest accomplishment was to “receive the kind of treatment typically reserved for rich white guys.” Certainly, the white cop in 1937 is furious. He doesn’t understand what Rufus is saying; the problem, maybe, is that Rufus is talking at all. So he brings in some of his fellow officers to beat Rufus to a pulp. Or maybe worse: Who’s stopping them, eight decades before Facebook Live? (Hell, we have Facebook Live: Is that stopping anything?)
Fortunately for Rufus, Wyatt comes to his rescue. A black man attacked by white authority figures gets saved by another white guy: somehow that moment is thought-provoking and self-aggrandizing, which is a roundabout way of saying “disappointing.” Timeless is too network-y to follow its own implications to their logical endpoint. It wants history to be a nightmare, but it also wants to glory in period-piece wonders: Zeppelins, carriages, old-timey accents. Rufus walks into a tavern in 1937 New York and the white barflies stare daggers at him. Meanwhile, Wyatt walks into the same bar and meet-cutes with a sassy photojournalist. In episode 2, Lucy walks into Ford’s Theater and meet-cutes with Abraham Lincoln’s son. A few hours later, she’s shaking hands with the president. Timeless wants to challenge some rosy fifth-grade vision of American history – but it also wants to print the legend
Timeless comes from Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan, purveyors of the toppest of top-notch genre television. Ryan made The Shield and produced the one-season wonder Terriers; Kripke created Supernatural, which will outlive whatever cockroaches survive the apocalypse. But Timeless feels more like their last couple projects: Ryan’s nuclear-submarine actioner Last Resort, and Kripke’s swordpocalypse adventure Revolution. Both shows tackled American iconography in complicated, fascinating, undigested ways. On Last Resort, Andre Braugher was a navy man forced by a corrupt U.S. government into a global nuclear détente. On Revolution, 15 years without electricity transformed the country into an agrariancore battleground ruled by militias and crossbows.
Both shows were ambitious. (Last Resort had one of my favorite pilots ever.) Neither show remotely lived up to those ambitions. Last Resort could’ve been Apocalypse Now, almost was Tropical 24, but inevitably felt like a talky NCIS spinoff piled on top of a frustratingly too-sane Scandal. Revolution was a feast of ambient worldbuilding grafted onto a lame family story: One of those shows where the main characters always felt like they were in the way.
Timeless picks where they left off. Flynn keeps going to famous incidents in American history, threatening to mess them up. Why is he doing all this? Lucy’s theory is that he’s “trying to kill America in the crib, rewrite history before it’s even written.” (Of course, it doesn’t take a time machine to rewrite history: Ask the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.)
I hope Timeless does well in the ratings, because, on a grand scale, I think Kripke and Ryan are up to something interesting. In the first two episodes, historical events are altered in minor, intriguing ways. It feels like the show is testing its own boundaries – building, maybe, to a truly alternative-reality version of America. Could Timeless really change our history? Our heroes are supposed to maintain the space-time continuum, but they also quickly start to wonder if changing the past would fix the present. (Like any good time travel show, Timeless immediately establishes the possibility that some of our heroes might be future villains – that they might actually be fighting themselves.) Lucy the historian serves as the show’s mouthpiece for acceptance. “The present is imperfect, but it’s ours,” she says. It’s a nice sentiment. But who, in this American moment, honestly believes this present belongs to them?
So Timeless has some philosophical problems. A bigger issue: It’s a bore. The digital effects look expensive, but unconvincing. The first two episodes establish a playbook that’s already played out: Gang gets an assignment, Gang travels back in time, Gang experiences easily resolved personal subplots, Goran Visjnic says something confusing, Gang returns to present for debriefing.
Maybe Timeless will break out of that structure. Or maybe it’s another example of a wild big concept ruined by proceduralization. This afflicted Last Resort and Revolution, too: Both shows could feel painfully locked into an episodic structure, with a rigid focus on a central TEAM on an obvious hour-long TASK. Some shows have successfully split the difference between season-long arcs and individual chapters: The better seasons of Fringe and Justified come to mind. But when a show tries for that split and fails, it’s the worst of both worlds: All the narrative flab of a wheel-spinning serialized saga, all the boring repetition of a procedural on season-9 autopilot.
You yearn for genre television that can be leisurely paced, even experimental, with slow-burning human stories given equal weight to the grand-scale plot-cosmic elements. And I’m not talking about or Lost or Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones. I’m talking about, like, FlashForward, a one-season goof about fate and free will and Dominic Monaghan. FlashForward had the softest and highest of soft-sci-fi high-concepts: The whole world sees the future! The show failed completely in its master mythology, as a revolving door of showrunners struggled through mad scientists and well-dressed conspiracies and a vague environmental sub-subtext.
But in its single silly season, FlashForward democratically weaved in character-centric short stories and oddly charming human-scale subplots. Gabrielle Union and John Cho tried to plan their wedding. Young lovers searched the world, desperate to meet each other. In the best episode of the show’s short run, a young FBI agent played by Lee Thompson Young dies by suicide to save a woman he’s never met – a moving storyline, made all the more terribly poignant by Young’s own suicide a few years later.
One of FlashForward‘s hundred main characters was Nicole, a babysitter who also worked at a hospital but most notably dressed up for Halloween as Sally from A Nightmare Before Christmas. (What a show!) Nicole was played by Peyton List, one of those young performs who seems to be at the top of every casting directors’ list during pilot season. TV wants to make her a star and List has been a regular on three one-season TV shows. Last year, she had a key recurring role on the barely-lived Blood & Oil.
You probably know her best as Jane on Mad Men. She was introduced in season 2 as a social disruptor: Chastised by office matriarch Joan for bad behavior, Jane famously huffed, “I don’t need a mother. I’m 20 years old.” This line landed like a depth charge: It made Joan, and by extension pretty much the entire main cast of Mad Men, feel oddly old, already out of date. Jane was an early symbol of that show’s larger story: How time could move brutally fast, carrying some people along, leaving others behind.
By the end of season 5, Jane was a divorced socialite, obviously still young and gorgeous, but unmistakably older, wiser, sadder. One of the last times she appeared on the show, she was immediately regretting a hook-up with her ex-husband – the kind of moment you can’t possible imagine, when you’re 20 years old and you don’t need a mother. “Now this is no different than the last place,” she said. Her boxes weren’t even unpacked in her new apartment; she was already to leave.
Actually, Mad Men was a time travel show, too. Sure, the characters moved forward the old-fashioned way. But the series paid strict, manic attention to the simple evolving details of history arriving: new fashion sense, new technology, new ways of speaking about old things. Seasons carefully advanced across the calendar of the decade, honoring holidays, birthdays, the creeping specter of death.
Jane was a minor participant, but her arc encapsulated the show’s maximal vision of history, and how changing times change people. Jane began as an irritant nemesis figure. Her rise to social prominence was also a descent into boozing and marital anxiety. She experienced a profound LSD-influenced vision of truth. She divorced, tried to move on, failed initially but maybe succeeded ultimately. In the end, she was simply and thankfully a familiar face, not friend nor enemy, merely a fellow traveler through troubled times.
Mad Men tracked other characters more completely, through vicissitudes more extreme. But you can get a sense of the broad scope of the show comparing one of List’s early appearances to her last one. There she is, smiling, as a man proposes marriage. And there she is, years later, talking to that same man. They’re divorced, and his mother is dead. She’s at the funeral out of kindness. She doesn’t love him anymore, but only because she knows him so much better.
Peyton List stars on Frequency, the new CW show based on a movie everyone just barely remembers kinda liking. The original Frequency was a touchy-feely sci-fi gem, with sad-eyed Jim Caviezel talking to gruff papa Dennis Quaid via time-traveling ham radio waves. It was a father-son movie and a kind of cross-cultural bromance. Quaid was the midcentury American manly man, the sort of guy Don Draper pretended to be; Caviezel was the broken-down lonely ’90s dude, weighed down with history and a depressive sense of loss.
There was also a serial killer: A goofy contrivance, but also the movie’s only real plot point. The small-screen Frequency imports the serial killer and immediately makes it the season’s master arc. But it also complicates the central relationship. Instead of Dennis Quaid, dad-in-the-past is Riley Smith. His Frank Sullivan is undercover cop with marital problems and late-grunge-era scruff. And of Caviezel, our present-day grieving grown-up child is List. She’s a modern-day detective named Raimy, and the buried joke of neo-Frequency is how dad and daughter become an archetypal renegade/paragon buddy-cop duo. He’s a loose-ish cannon desperate to prove himself, and she’s the straight arrow who just wants to keep her family together.
The show can’t compete with Timeless for era specificity, and it only barely tries. There’s some Oasis and Weezer on the soundtrack in the ’90s scenes, and the retro-world is blue-tinged. In the first two episodes, Raimy and Frank don’t have time to talk about world events or cultural changes. Which is a shame: Even the movie Frequency found time for Caviezel to whisper financial-advice tips to his younger self’s best friend. (You keep wanting to yell at Peyton List: “TELL HIM TO BUY APPLE STOCK, QUICK, BEFORE THE IMAC!”)
But Frequency has a clarity of purpose around its time travel. It’s not trying to tackle the big questions. It’s a story about a distant parent and a messed up kid. From Raimy’s perspective, Frank is a looming figure who let her down. From Frank’s perspective, he’s a man trying to make a better world for his kid – and suddenly discovering that said kid loathes him.
Timeless and Frequency actually share a remarkably similar plot turn in their first episode: Suffice it to say, meddling in the past might fix the present, but it also changes it dramatically. Timeless layers in the personal ramifications as a cute final-act twist. Frequency is only personal ramifications. Raimy rescues her father, but finds that her whole life has changed. The show’s helped by a couple strong supporting turns. As Raimy’s mom and Frank’s wife, Devin Kelley projects young-marital frustration and single-mom authority: The old age makeup’s a bit dodgy, but the emotions play. And then there’s Mekhi Phifer, who sells the time-hopping concept better than production design or special effects ever could: He just is two distinct eras of cop-pal, sardonic best-buddy to Frank in 1996, tenderhearted old mentor to Raimi in 2016.
The show could go off the rails. After two episodes, there’s a mission statement (stop the serial killer!) and the promise of a tangled mystery; there’s also a slippery use of time travel, which mainly demands that Raimi hold multiple version of reality in her head at once. But the core Raimy-Frank relationship works: They are constantly impressed by each other and frustrated with each other, desperate to prove themselves and frequently incapable of handling each other. There’s a push-pull between present and past. When his life gets better, her life gets worse. The more he tries to help her, the more he screws everything up for her.
The ads for Timeless proclaim that show’s mission statement: “Protect the past. Save the future.” The implication is that the past, for all its faults, is immaculate: Something that must be defended. On Frequency, the past is the problem, to be solved or deepened. There are two presents, really. In one, Frank tries to save the future, and ruins it. In another, Raimy tries to fix the past – and only makes it worse.
Is there a solution? Can they find some common ground? Is there a way to see the past and future, clearly – not as fantasy visions of glory lost or yet arriving, but as works in progress? Both Frequency and Timeless are works in progress, but only one is daring enough to suggest that the past isn’t even past.