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‘Timeless’ Review: Abigail Spencer and Company Go Back to the Past

NBC’s time-travel adventure might have a few too many twists

Hindsight may be 20/20, and this TV season we are seeing an awful lot of looking back. Time travel, which emerged as one of the central themes of this fall’s docket during the upfronts last May, lands on the schedule this week with the premiere of NBC’s “Timeless.”

Thanks to a strong behind-the-scenes team consisting of  Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”) and Eric Kripke (“Supernatural”) there’s been plenty of early buzz surrounding the series, which also happens to star small-screen darling Abigail Spencer (“Rectify,” “Mad Men”), former “90210” kid Matt Lanter, funny guy Malcolm Barrett (“Better Off Ted”) and Goran Visnjic (“ER”) as the history-changing bad guy.

The premise is simple enough considering the high time-travelling concept. A special and top-secret machine is stolen by a bunch of bad guys who have decided to go back and alter the course of history. It’s then up to an unlikely trio to follow the terrorists back in a secondary machine and stop them, without causing a butterfly effect or ruining mankind. So you know, no pressure.

At the outset the pilot is a fun and adventurous romp without ever feeling campy or overdone. The trio, consisting of historian Lucy (Spencer), muscle Wyatt (Lanter) and technician Rufus (Barrett), works well together in that misfits-trying-to-get-along kind of way. Wyatt’s stoic faces and serious nature pair well with Rufus’s nervous tendencies (as a black man travelling back in time no one could blame him), and Lucy’s reluctant but fascinated take on the whole collective.

Having an entire index of impressive historic events to draw on each week doesn’t hurt either, as it opens up the narrative and can often serve as an educational tool for younger viewers watching with their parents. The Hindenburg disaster is fodder for the pilot, and although special effects are called upon to pull off the re-creation they’re top notch, used sparingly and elevate the show’s overall tone. In fact were the series to stop at a procedural about avoiding the alteration of these sorts of historic events (no matter how awful), “Timeless” could make for a great weekly family adventure series, despite the later timeslot.

Where the plot gets bogged down is in the overall mysteries introduced in the pilot, namely those surrounding the Lucy character. Viewers quickly learn that the professor may have been chosen for the mission for more than just her historic expertise, and that the impacts of going on such assignments could have a larger influence on her personal life. The motives of the organization in charge are also called into question by the end of the first hour (as they usually are in such series), raising questions as to who the bad guys in this show truly are.

It’s a typical problem of series these days trying to stand above the rest; as shows continuing throwing a twist into otherwise solid procedural premises the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) method of storytelling gets tossed to the curb. These days procedural and serialized hybrids seem to be a must ,with a few too many showrunners and networks hoping for appointment viewing, when sometimes all people really want is to escape their long day on the couch for an hour or so.

Those who fall into that later camp will certainly be able to escape for at least a little while with “Timeless,” but if they’re consistently faced with more twists than they care to think about, NBC could find those viewers settling for another CBS-procedural type instead.

“Timeless” premieres Monday, Oct. 3 at 10 p.m. on NBC.