Timeless, the NBC drama about a team of heroes (Abigail Spencer’s historian Lucy, Matt Lanter’s soldier Wyatt, and Malcolm Barrett’s engineer Rufus) who keep traveling back in time to prevent different groups from altering the past, changed a bit of its own history last spring. NBC canceled the show after only a season, then reversed course a few days later, giving creators Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan the chance to continue the story — and to make some improvements to how they tell it.
Timeless season one was fun, particularly in the chemistry between the three leads and the opportunities that the Mission of the Week formula gave them to interact with colorful historical figures like Abe Lincoln and Bass Reeves, the black U.S. Marshal who helped inspire The Lone Ranger. But to justify the missions, Kripke and Ryan set up a complicated mythology involving both terrorist Garcia Flynn (Goran Višnjić) and a shadowy organization called Rittenhouse that was looking to rewrite history for its own ends. More often than not, the Rittenhouse material felt like an obligatory distraction from the better parts of the show, even after Lucy discovered that her entire family was involved in the conspiracy.
The four episodes I’ve seen of the second season (which premieres Sunday at 10pm ET) smartly tweak the formula in ways that make all the pieces feel better integrated. Now, Rittenhouse is seeding history with sleeper agents who can make even bigger changes, which makes them a more fundamental part of each mission without getting in the way of the team’s opportunities to meet Marie Curie, black NASCAR driver Wendell Scott, or movie star/inventor Hedy Lamarr. And rather than being the archvillain who always improbably slips away at the last moment, Flynn is now something of a reluctant ally of the good guys, which gives Višnjić much more varied interactions with his co-stars.
It’s the same show, but better, which is the sort of sophomore year jump you’d expect from a pair of veteran showrunners like Kripke (Supernatural) and Ryan (The Shield).
I emailed Ryan a few questions about the changes made, and what impact, if any, Timeless‘s brush with death had on the creative side of season two.
Over the course of the 16 episodes you made last season, what did you and Eric learn about what the show was good and not as good at, and how is that knowledge reflected in the new set-up for season two?
I think we learned that a little spectacle goes a long way and we shouldn’t sacrifice character for even more spectacle. Digging deeper into our main characters and then really letting the audience get to meet and fall in love with our historical characters of the week proved to be more successful than trying to build the Alamo each episode. We also learned that we could lean on our supporting cast more and play with who goes on missions each week and mix up the dynamics in fun ways. That led to different permutations in the Lifeboat many eps this season and digging deeper into the personal stories of the characters left behind each week.
Did the brush with cancellation have any additional impact on the storytelling? Did NBC ask you to make any changes as part of the discussion?
No, I think it just made us braver to embrace the aspects of the show we love and to not leave any of our best ideas for tomorrow, let’s use them today. NBC never had an issue with the show creatively. They really love it. We’re using the same season outline that we pitched them in March of last year, two months before our brief cancellation.
Last year, stories started out with historical events and characters that Team Lifeboat was trying to preserve. In season two, you still have those elements, but the added wrinkle of Rittenhouse having sleeper agents who’ve been living in the past. How does that change or complicate the storytelling? Are stories being broken differently now than they were?
I think it makes the stories easier for us to craft, especially because we don’t have to concoct new and fascinating ways for Flynn to escape each episode. It gives us definitive villains to uncover, defeat and dispatch in each episode. Gives our team some more obvious wins at times, which is fun.
Also, have you had to add or change the time travel rules to compensate for the sleeper agent idea and the impact they’re having on the timeline?
Our internal rules have not changed but it’s made us pay very close attention to what’s happening and if it makes sense. We understand that while time travel rules don’t really exist that viewers still feel like they understand them and will punish you if they believe you are straying. We’re trying to be true and clear with our rules while not presenting a quantum physics lecture each week.
With each passing episode, there are more and more changes to the timeline that we know. How closely are you tracking what the world of 2018 seems like as the result of all these changes? To use an example from season one, how far did the ripple effects of the changed circumstances of the Lincoln assassination go? And do you have any rules about changes that might make the show’s timeline feel too different from our own for the audience to follow, or is that part of the fun of doing a time travel show?
We track them as closely as we can. Certainly Lucy is less concerned about maintaining strict historical accuracy as she was in season one. She’s gravitating more towards just doing what she thinks is right in the moment. We understand that a lot of people subscribe to the butterfly effect theory, but we’ve talked a lot in our show about fate versus free will and we’ve seen examples in our episodes of certain events “finding a way” to happen despite our best efforts, which suggests that fate or a higher power play a role in the Timeless universe. In the writers room we talk about history being like a river. You can try to divert it and sometimes you will succeed, but many times the water will find its way back to the river. It’s fun to contemplate a new Bond movie being made — Weapon of Choice — after their events in World War 2 last year. Changes like that are cool to us. We assume there are a million little changes that occur due to butterfly effects, but ultimately we want to keep the world on the show very recognizable to our audience — Eric uses the example of dinosaurs marching down 5th Avenue in SS uniforms as the kind of deviation we’d want to avoid. Change that becomes too big and not relatable. And finally, we’re far more interested in the personal changes in history – Lucy’s sister, etc.., — than we are at cataloguing whether Taco Bell was never founded.
The team this year is in much less fancy digs, with less support and fewer rules. They often just have to steal clothes when they arrive in the past, for instance. Did you feel the organizational structure last year was too formal, or was there another reason for making everything more loosey-goosey?
We liked the idea of putting our heroes under a lot of strain this year, making them the underdogs and forcing them all to live together in a veritable pressure cooker. We didn’t feel that we had done anything wrong in Season 1, but we liked the idea of changing their circumstances drastically in Season 2 and making life as physically uncomfortable for them as possible.
Flynn’s role is very different this season. Why did you decide to reposition him, and is it ever difficult to write scenes with him in this role given the understandable animosity between him and Lucy’s team over the events of season one?
Yes, we’ve enjoyed changing Flynn’s role on the show. It begins as a classic “enemy of my enemy is my friend” situation but I believe it evolves into more than that over time. Certainly, Wyatt and Rufus are very antagonistic towards Flynn and distrust him in the way you suggest. Lucy, who shares Flynn’s pain of “losing a family to Rittenhouse” — for him literally and for her figuratively — is more open to seeing the human side of Flynn and being open to his possible redemption. And then when he starts proving his worth, it will cause everyone to reevaluate Flynn. But certainly, no one on the team will forget the pain and havoc he caused in season one.
Chicken/egg question for generating episode ideas: do you start with an event or era, then find an interesting historical figure like Hedy Lamarr who could wind up helping out the good guys, or do you say, “Wow, Hedy Lamarr was cool; what reason could we come up with for Rufus to meet her?” Have you built up a long list of events and/or people you’d like to get to in the event of a long run?
We always start with what the emotional story we want to tell with our main characters is and then we try to find the right time period and right historical figures to tell that story. In the case of episode three, we knew that we wanted to tell a story of romantic temptation between Lucy and Wyatt and loved the idea of doing it in one of the most romantic places and times we could think of, classic Hollywood. Having Rufus bond with a fellow scientist in Hedy Lamarr was a great bonus for us too. Occasionally a historical figure will sound so cool to us — like Bass Reeves last season — that we will try a little harder to fit a story in with them.
Given how close you came to not coming back, are you writing the season any differently — trying to leave everything out on the field just in case you don’t get lucky a second time around? Or has the uncancellation actually made you more confident in the show’s long-term future, and thus more secure in how you pace the story?
We’ve made a conscious decision to think positively and not wrap up everything in a neat bow as if we expect to get canceled again (Trademark: Tim Minear). We obviously don’t know what the future holds (despite our time machines!) but we are using all our best ideas, will end the season in what we think is a fascinating place and will then attack Season 3 if and when the time comes. We are definitely taking the kind of chances that only those who survive near-death encounters tend to take. The Jeff Bridges movie Fearless comes to mind. We’re going to eat a lot of strawberries this season.