I’m always primed for any show about time-travel, and Timeless grabbed me before its premiere because of this snippet in the trailer from Malcolm Barrett:
“I’m Black. There is literally no place in American history that’ll be awesome for me.”
It reads as funny and tragic and, if you think about it, he may be talking about yesterday as much as the 1930’s, where he headed in the pilot. This line opens up a whole story about him and his relationship to the America’s past that has incredible potential. Sadly, he could also include the pilot for Timeless in that history, since no place in this story is awesome for him — not they way it should be.
That line is the best in the pilot and I’m sorry to report it will likely be the best line in the series. It was spoken before his character was revealed to be little more than the comic relief to the two white leads. Maybe that will change in future episodes, but here Barrett’s character Rufus is mostly rendered irrelevant. In many scenes he is present, but cropped entirely out of frame for long stretches. The effect was so startling that I wondered if he was added to the pilot last minute.
Not long after the time-travelers arrive in 1937, they are walking to town when a bus comes up behind them. Its not the yellow and green stripped Rosa Parks bus, its too early in history for that, but it would be logical for any viewer to feel tension derived from historical context and wonder, what’s going to happen next.What happens next is they arrive in town via a quick edit. Rufus says “So, the back of the bus was amazing,” and that is the end of it. What could have been a tense, interesting and uncomfortable scene focusing on Rufus is eliminated for the sake of expediently getting the leads into town. His quick line is supposed to played for humor.
Shortly thereafter, Rufus is asked to wait outside a bar for his own safety and… he does. It is also suggest he avoid eye-contact with anyone. This whole series could be fascinating if we just followed Rufus out the door to call out our own history. How ugly are the “good old days” that a present day man must behave as if he is about to walk among hungry zombies. The stakes and the tension are palpable. But we don’t follow him. Our attention is directed over and over again to the two white leads and their dull, watery story.
On the other hand, there is a scene in which Rufus is given a pivotal role. The three time-travelers are jailed, with the male and female leads inexplicably locked in the same cell, while Rufus is locked in another. To distract an overtly racist, white 1930’s police officer Rufus starts needling him and he says this:
“I hope you live long enough to see Michael Jordan dunk, Michael Jackson dance, Mike Tyson punch…really just any Black guy named Michael, because the future is not on your side.”
Out of context, that line has to feel great. The implied optimism that things are getting better is heartening. But his words are not the point. His speech is literally a distraction — a distraction so the white leads can pick a lock, beat up two armed police, and flee to save… time? His speech also completely ignores any sense of present history and the relations between the police and people of color. No matter what you may think of those relations, utterly ignoring where we are at deflates any commentary this show might want to have about history in general.
The mains story is, to be frank, a garbage retelling of the Star Trek original series classic: City on the Edge of Forever, with some long range plot mystery involving Goran Visnjic “changing the timeline”, whatever that means.
The shows two leads both have sad backstories. One is a historian with a sick mother and the other has a dead wife who coincidentally looks exactly like the first woman we see (a 1937 reporter who opens the series with an arguably anachronistic joke about penis size). Since the show is dedicated to messing with the timeline, I’m sure we will see her back soon in the role of the dead wife, resurrected. (Is a stupid and manipulative plot twist considered a spoiler? If so, SPOILER ALERT.)
But I didn’t care about any of it. There was no depth to these stories. They were obvious shorthanded and shallow. The only character I wanted to know more about was Rufus. That one line from the trailer made him far more interesting than anything anyone else the show had to offer. However, rather than that line making the show more interesting, the show made that line feel like a throwaway.
I could say more about other problems, like the botched logic of rushing to get back to 1937 before the timeline is changed when they are already after any events that take place in the past, but so many time-travel stories choose this mechanic for the sake of drama that it seems mean-spirited to take this program to task for it.
Instead let me wrap up with this: If you feel oddly that I’ve spent this review focusing almost entirely on a secondary character, while sidelining the leads (who I haven’t even bothered to name), then you may have a sense of how literally marginalizing the show’s storytelling is to its one black character.