Way back in October, in simpler times, I wrote that I was excited for Timeless because 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.”
I went on to say I was disappointed in the show, and that line would like likely be the best in the series. I hoped that would change in future episodes, and I am happy to be back to report that, for the most part, it did.
One of my complaints about the pilot was that Rufus is asked to wait outside a bar for his own safety and it is suggested he avoid eye-contact with anyone. I was annoyed not because this seemed unrealistic, but because it was rendered as a side story, barely of note. But Timeless went on to do something interesting with this moment, playing a long-game I had not anticipated.
Episode 6 of the show takes this scene and redresses it by reversing the roles. On his way into a club filled with Black Panthers, Rufus quotes Lucy the same lines back to her. “Don’t make eye-contact. You’ll probably be okay.”
This isn’t a perfect moment, but it serves as a nice follow up, directly addressing my comments.
The show went on to include episodes featuring Katherine Johnson (the main character of the true story Hidden Figures) and Bass Reeves (which literally brought forth cheers in my household.) If you don’t know who Bass Reeves is, look him up. To quote Rufus, “The Lone Ranger’s black? That’s awesome!”
The show continues to suffer from a common chrono-illogic seen in most “we have to fix the time-line” plots. If one bad guy time-traveler has gone back in time to, say, 1962, the protagonists need to rush back to stop him from his dastardly plan.They don’t need to rush. They could wait a week, a month or a year before heading back to the time, preferably to sometime a little before the villain’s arrival and then go ahead and duke it out as they do. On the other end of this is the same issue reversed, which is that if they spend 4 days in 1962, they are gone for 4 days in 2017. There is no good reason they can’t return the moment after they left, ala Hermione Granger, saving their loved ones their concerns that they “have been gone for days.”
All of this is compounded by the show’s need to have, like all modern shows, an over-arching mystery. In this case: Rittenhouse. The payoffs for such long form mysteries are rarely satisfying and I can’t say I’m much compelled by this one.
What is compelling? The show’s unevenness. Some episodes are much better than others, which when they are good, leads to delight. A few performances have emerged that have stood out. I’m thinking in particular of Jacqueline Byers outstandingly emotional take on Bonnie Parker in Episode 9. The episode itself isn’t the best, but she is. Her acting was more in line with what you might see in an Oscar nominated independent film. It was almost inappropriately good, especially next to the serviceable, TV grade performances of the leads, and, worse, the wooden, below grade Clyde she was stuck with. Jacqueline Byers — watch out for her in future.
But my favorite part of the season 1 happened last night during the finale. We were treated to a very clever and affecting moment involving Lucy’s grandfather Ethan Cahill. Spoilers ahead. We know he is a member of the Rittenhouse conspiracy so when Lucy and Wyatt follow him to a clandestine location where he is meeting with a group of men in secret, it fits with plot. The real surprise is that this isn’t the Rittenhouse meeting; Lucy’s grandfather is meeting at a secret gay club. What makes this so interesting is, intentionally or otherwise, the show makes clear that in 1954, it was clearly considered more immoral to be a gay man than to be part of an evil conspiracy to control the world.
More importantly, this scene is followed by a moment whose intention couldn’t be more clear. Ethan assumes he is going to be blackmailed over his sexuality and confesses his “sins” lamenting that he has not been able to turn himself straight. He references electroshock conversion therapy (which I wish was more dated a reference than it is.) Ethan is a tortured soul and we are treated to another outstanding performance from Johnathan Tchaikovsky who imbues Ethan Cahill with a real sadness. When Lucy and Wyatt console him and tell him there is nothing wrong with him, Ethan says “Who are you people?” like he cannot believe it. I found myself hoping they would bring Ethan along to future — not because it made sense, but because Ethan would be happier there.
All of this has got me thinking about what disappointed me about this show in the pilot, and what kept me watching. Part of what I wanted to see was the present at odds with the past. I’m not much of a fan of “the good old days” theory that things used to be better. Putting a black man in the cockpit of the time machine ensures that we can see the past is not a safe or wonderful place to feel nostalgic for. Where this happens on Timeless — especially where expectations are defied — the show is at its best.