Roush Review: A Timeless Romp, a Lack of Conviction

Matt Roush
Timeless
Joe Lederer/NBC

Of all the trends you would expect to see network TV embrace—might I suggest a thoughtful classic Western of the Lonesome Dove variety?—time-travel fantasies were probably pretty far down anyone’s list. And yet here we are, with two premiering this week (The CW’s Frequency bows Wednesday) and more on their way at midseason, including a wacky sitcom.

I can’t help wondering if this is just a way for the networks to wax nostalgic, wishing they could transport back to a time when it was just the Big Three (or Four) dominating the medium, without the Netflixes of the world upstaging them at every turn. (Anecdotal case in point: I keep hearing from people who’ve just discovered this cool Netflix show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, unaware it spent a whole year on The CW with advocates such as yours truly beating the drum for it.)

But I digress. First out of the time-travel gate is NBC’s splashy action-adventure Timeless, which I described in my Fall Preview overview as “rollicking nonsense,” an opinion confirmed after watching a second episode. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. During the summer TCA press tour, the show’s producers (including The Shield’s Shawn Ryan and Supernatural’s Eric Kripke) suggested they’re aiming for fun escapism of the Quantum Leap variety more than a dark, confusing, mythology-laden downer like Syfy’s 12 Monkeys (no knock on that one, but TV shouldn’t always be such hard work).

So far, they seem to have lived up to their modest high-concept ambitions, presenting a fairly breathless and more or less mindless race through time as an eclectic team of heroes goes in pursuit of a mysterious bad guy (or is he?) who stole a time machine, from which he visits pivotal moments in history: the Hindenburg explosion this week, Lincoln’s assassination the next. Walter Cronkite’s classic You Are There show had nothing on these guys.

Best not to overthink things as the good guys—history professor Lucy (Rectify’s Abigail Spencer), dashing Delta Force soldier Wyatt (Matt Lanter) and timidly nerdy pilot Rufus (an amusing Malcolm Barrett)—climb aboard a rickety prototype called “the Lifeboat” to chase time bandit Garcia Flynn (ER’s Goran Visnjic), who stole the lab’s more deluxe time machine. How no one spots their vehicles as they land in the distant past is one of the biggest mysteries here.

What Flynn is up to is the other central puzzle. Is he trying to make things worse or better by altering history? Should they be stopping or helping him, and in the case of Lincoln, should they let tragic events take their course, or give the story a happier ending? Because if anything in the past should change (cue the butterfly effect), what does that do to the current timeline? Nothing good, I assure you, because we’ve been down that road many times before.

The producers are clearly having fun with these timeless questions, and the cast is a treat to behold as their characters integrate into long-ago eras with elaborate costumes and new personas. This is especially problematic for Rufus, the nervous lab rat turned pilot, who’s African-American: “There’s literally no place in American history that will be awesome for me.”

Timeless falls way below the “awesome” spectrum, but as an enjoyably silly romp, it’s pretty painless.

Conviction

John Medland/ABC

Hayley Atwell and Bess Armstrong in Conviction

SET ME FREE: Few things are more aggravating than a TV show that sets up its formula to conform to TV algebra: like presenting someone with 100 challenges, matching the magic number of 100 episodes that it used to take to get to syndication heaven; or in the case of ABC’s dreary Conviction, setting New York’s Conviction Integrity Unit the task of resolving each of its cases in five days, conforming to the number of act breaks per episode.

But Conviction piles on the aggravations by slavishly copying Shonda Rhimes’ patented style of high-gloss melodrama, an ABC addiction that is garnering diminishing results with dud clones like Notorious. The main character of Conviction is right out of a bad episode of Scandal: Hayes Morrison (Agent Carter’s Hayley Atwell, trading down), a disgraced First Daughter first shown in a jail cell after her latest drugged-out sexcapade, given probation on one condition by one of her past conquests, handsome stiff DA Connor Wallace (Eddie Cahill). After a round of supposedly sexy fast-talking banter, set to a pulse-pounding and migraine-inducing soundtrack, Connor puts the sulky, cynical, horrible Hayes in charge of the CIU, whose mission is to look into contested convictions to see if there’s enough evidence to exonerate.

The real guilty parties here are the writers who’ve populated this show with so many stock characters and clichéd twists that it’s difficult to become invested in any of the outcomes, thanks to a criminal neglect of originality that no amount of appeal would reverse a negative opinion.

Timeless premieres Monday, October 3, 10/9c, on NBC.

Conviction premieres Monday, October 3, 10/9c, on ABC.