Time-travel series offer an always intriguing premise: What if?
Such shows rely on the butterfly effect. This is a phenomenon in which a small localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere. And you can't find a much more complex system than the history of the world. What if you make a small change in the past? How will it affect the future?
On paper, Timeless sounds like a great idea. It's created by talented producers Eric Kripke (Supernatural) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield). It combines parts of Quantum Leap (jumping back to key points in history) and Sliders (a team format).
Granted, Sliders was more inter-dimensional than time travel, but it still fits the what-if format.
Let's start with a simple overview of Timeless (no mean feat). Gabriel Flynn, a former NSA asset, breaks into Mason Industries and steals a top-secret time-machine prototype and kidnaps the project director, Anthony Bruhl.
Connor Mason, the company's owner, and Denise Christopher, a Homeland Security agent, recruit a team to go after Flynn in an older prototype: historian Lucy Preston, soldier Wyatt Logan and coder-turned-pilot Rufus Carlin. Their mission: To figure out and thwart Flynn's plans and preserve history.
So far, in Lucy's parlance, they'd be earning about a C. Getting by, but not in a stellar way. They've figured out Flynn is trying to hinder America's development, and they've blocked that, but they come back each time to a history that's been changed, either in big or small ways.
For example, Lucy's mother Carol has arisen from her deathbed, but Lucy's sister Amy no longer exists. Hardly a win-win.
The powers that be, Mason and Christopher, seem to view the results as "close enough." But the team members are just as much to blame.
Lucy, the font of historical knowledge, is too frequently moon-eyed about some historical figure. Wyatt sees his mission as killing Flynn, with any changes in history just collateral damage, as he shoots redshirts right and left. Rufus wants to improve history, seemingly not realizing that improvement is a matter of perspective.
Sadly, mucking around with history isn't the series' worst offense. More frustrating is a convoluted back story that never gets revealed. Here's some of the many questions that have yet to be answered:
- There is some connection between Lucy and Flynn that he knows about but of which she is unaware. Is he her father, her son, her future lover?
- Flynn is planning his attacks from a journal complied by a future version of Lucy. So is he from the future? If so, why does he need the time machine? He also hints that he's the good guy and Lucy is now working for the bad guys. Is that true, or just head games?
- A shadowy entity called Rittenhouse is behind Mason's project. Is it an organization, a cabal? What's its end game?
- Who is Lucy's father? At the end of Timeless Season 1, Episode 5, Carol gave Lucy a slip of paper with her father's name on it, so maybe this at least will be revealed, and may answer some other questions. Or cause more.
- Will Wyatt, still hurting from his wife's death, and Lucy, who just dumped her time-bestowed fiancee, become an item?
- Will Rufus stop being a reluctant spy for Rittenhouse and its proxy, Mason?
In this short-attention-span world, viewers, even sci-fi geeks, won't tolerate this lack of back story. Lost would never have survived today, especially on network TV.
Viewers want to understand what's going on now, so they can laugh at the clueless characters. They don't want to be confused themselves, however. They're annoyed by the "wash-rinse-repeat" cycle of the episodes thus far.
The ratings show that viewers are giving up, as Timeless has gone from 7.957 million viewers for its premiere down to 5.235 million for its fifth episode.
It's outlasted ABC's Conviction and earned an order for three additional episodes. But that's likely to be it for this season, as NBC executives seem to think they have many quality shows they still need to try out this season (would that that were true).
So, before even more viewers flee, producers need a mythology episode, one that answers some of the questions above and connects the dots, so viewers can see the big picture, or at least the framework, and can understand the characters' motivations.
Right now it's just Flynn acting and the team reacting, which is getting really old really fast. Soon viewers will stop making time for Timeless, unless producers make it worth their time by giving them more knowledge and a reason to stay.
Timeless returns at 10/9c Monday, Nov. 14, on NBC. To catch up, watch Timeless online.
Dale McGarrigle is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.