Review: NBC’s time-travel adventure ‘Timeless’ gets the human element right

All time travel stories are gibberish – and I say this as someone who has spent a lot of my life reading, watching, and enjoying stories about time travel. No matter how thoroughly the rules of traveling to the past or future have been laid out and explained to the audience, they never fully make sense, never entirely manage to duck under the question of paradox, and will always make your brain hurt if you try to think about it too hard. The climax of the Jim Caviezel/Dennis Quaid movie Frequency(*), to name one, falls apart halfway through, because Quaid does something to the bad guy in the past that would certainly prevent him from being in front of Caviezel in the present(**).

(*) Frequency is, conveniently for this review, being turned into a TV show, debuting Wednesday night at 9 on the CW. I enjoyed the pilot – which gender flips the Caviezel character (now played by Peyton List), makes the dad a cop instead of a fireman, and compresses the timeline from 30 years to 20 – but don't want to write much about it until I've seen more episodes, because I'm skeptical that the concept can be stretched more than a few hours beyond where it is now.

(**) Frequency movie spoilers: yes, the killer's hand vanishes in the present after Quaid shoots it off in the past, but that guy would have spent the past 30 years either in a cell or as a one-handed fugitive, and would have no reason to be trying to kill Caviezel in that moment. 

So time travel inevitably requires you to turn off your brain, or at least focus it elsewhere, which is why the most satisfying time travel stories – say, Quantum Leap, or the better eras of Doctor Who – are usually the ones with some kind of human element so compelling that concern for the rules of killing baby Hitler take a distant backseat to finding out if things will turn out okay for our heroes.

Timeless, the first of several new network shows this season with time travel at the core of the premise (besides Frequency, Fox has Making History coming at midseason), has a good sense of priorities. The show, created by Eric Kripke (Supernatural) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield), has its three heroes – historian Lucy (Abigail Spencer), engineer Rufus (Malcolm Barrett), and soldier Wyatt (Matt Lanter) – visiting big moments in history like the Hindenburg explosion and the Lincoln assassination in order to stop a terrorist (Goran Visnjic) who has stolen a time machine, and devotes a lot of energy to the costumes, sets, and opportunities for its characters to rub elbows with famous people. (Lucy hits it off with Robert Lincoln while trying to figure out what the bad guy has in store for Honest Abe.) Does it all make sense? Not hugely, despite a lot of exposition peppered throughout the two episodes (the first of which debuts tonight at 10) NBC made available to critics. But the show works because I quickly found myself caring about what happened to Lucy – a character who could come across as a walking Wikipedia, but is played with winning smarts and vulnerability by Spencer, fresh off her time on Sundance's brilliant Rectify(*) – and because she and her partners are given ample opportunity to exist as people with recognizable concerns independent of whatever the plot needs that week.

(*) Rectify wrapped a while back, but Sundance doesn't debut the new season til later this month, which creates a time travel paradox of its own, where Spencer will be existing on two series at the same time.

Both the show and Rufus are painfully aware, for instance, that virtually every era they travel to is a bad time in which to be a black man, and there's a poignant scene in the Lincoln episode where he befriends some black Civil War veterans and helps them write notices in search of the family members they haven't seen since they escaped slavery. The soldiers eventually loop back into the main story, but that pause to let Rufus get a firsthand understanding of what they went through goes a long way towards making this feel like more than a group of actors playing dress-up in period clothes.

The episodes drop periodic hints about Visnjic's agenda that suggest Kripke and Ryan have more in mind than a Time Trip of the Week format – even if the vibe on the whole is very retro (the show could air in the '80s and '90s, and the only notable change would be more primitive special effects) – but in the moment, the most compelling parts are about how the missions impact the characters personally, whether through the people they meet in the past, or the way their actions alter the present. 

I can't predict how I feel about the mythology and larger structure of Timeless in the near future, but in the present, it's got people I'm interested in following, and that's a good start.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at