Every now and then, a show comes along that is so ridiculous — so expansively silly — that it goes around the bend from meaningless to meaningful, from a blank canvas to one whose emptiness signifies something profound. “Timeless” is such a show — maybe. It’s either unintentionally brilliant or unintentionally just very funny — a show that, like the film “The Core,” is so full of dramatic, pseudo-scientific non sequiturs that each begs to be examined, repeated, and hopefully one day cross-stitched onto samplers. Because the procedural is so committed to its own absurd premise, it deserves to at least be gazed at for a moment, even if you don’t find it potentially significant.
“Timeless” is a time-traveling adventure procedural in which an unlikely trio of heroes follows history-changing criminals as they hop through significant events in world history. In its strangely educational value and vaguely crime-related premise, it is like “Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” — except more accurately it is like “Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego?,” the earlier public access game show’s slightly less iconic successor. In the pilot episode, the historic event of note is the Hindenburg; the showrunners have promised future episodes around President Lincoln’s assassination, Nazi Germany, the Alamo, and Watergate.
In order for “Timeless” to make sense, the premiere episode has to establish a) that time travel exists; b) that criminals have stolen a time machine in order to change the course of history; and c) that the only way to stop them is if a professor of history, an ex-military agent, and a time-ship pilot band together to follow the thieves through the space-time continuum. The pilot does so with admirable if perfunctory speed, setting up the basic principles — Time bandits! Loops in space-time! And you’ll go with this guy! — so quickly that it’s mere minutes before the three are in 1937 New Jersey, running around in old-timey clothes.
Lucy, the professor, is played by the prodigiously talented Abigail Spencer, who had a major role on AMC’s “Rectify” and a supporting role in HBO’s “True Detective.” Here she plays a character whose major personality traits are “smart” and “plucky.”
She’s joined in her journey through time by Rufus (Malcolm Barrett), a scientist who knows how to fly the time machine, and Wyatt (Matt Lanter), a soldier. Wyatt’s presence is in some ways the most intriguing; while Lucy knows apparently everything about every time period in history, and Rufus can get them through the loops of the space-time continuum, Wyatt is endearingly useless — only there to wave around a gun, brood over his emotions, and exercise white male privilege (handy for, among other things, getting into bars).
Indeed: “Timeless” is, somewhat surprisingly, very aware of its identity politics. History treated some people much better than others, and in the pilot, Rufus, who is black, ends up being the episode’s hero — somehow mingling comic relief and essential know-how with the character that consistently has the most to lose. When they travel back to 1937, he’s made to sit in the back of the bus and gets dirty looks just for walking into the same bar as Lucy and Wyatt. Lucy suggests, with advice that must have sounded nice in her head, that he wait outside and not make eye contact with anyone. Rufus makes a joke about how he really wishes he had never come on this trip, but it’s a joke that bears out more earnestly just a few scenes later, when two police officers decide to teach him a lesson for having too much attitude. Rufus’ speech to the racist officer is both funny and heartfelt, starting with praising the future accomplishments of Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson, “really just any black guy named Michael,” and ending with “I hope you see it all, because the future is not on your side.”
It’s hard to tell, based on just the pilot, if “Timeless” is brilliant or exploitative; it might be both at the same time. But what is clear is that “Timeless”’ interest is not in exploring the metaphysical repercussions of time travel, or the lived reality of historical experience. It’s smart enough to make the mechanics and facts of its premise just plausible enough, but its real interest of exploration are the details that are relevant to the audience — what it is like for us, with our current values and awareness, to enter into times that are so far removed from where we are now. The show has a B-movie premise, action-adventure sensibilities, and a sense of humor about its own preposterous storytelling. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s lazy. “Timeless” is derivative and predictable in many of the pilot’s moments — Wyatt and Lucy start hate-flirting so quickly that you could put a timer on their sexual tension — but it’s injecting that formula with a perspective that gets that even the dumbest entertainment needs to understand its audience.
The pilot plants all kinds of seeds for future storylines — including the chilling reminder that every time Lucy, Rufus, and Wyatt fail to stop the criminals, something about their present goes weirdly awry. For Lucy, it’s her family, which changes configurations because of what happens to the Hindenburg. The show’s continued emphasis is on how history — and, to stretch further, technology — end up filtering into our personal lives, whether we want them to or not. That’s a note of relevance that even a time machine implausibly winking in and out of existence can’t quite drown out.