TV Loves Time Travel This Fall—But Only One Show Hits Home
Primetime television is turning from a grid to a flat circle: this week, two new shows debuted in which people either visit, or talk to, the past. On NBC, Timeless follows the adventures of the heroic crew of a time machine, who have to save history from being destroyed by terrorists who’ve stolen another, shinier time machine. And over on The CW, home of the Arrowverse, Frequency is an adaptation of the 2000 movie about a ham radio that can communicate across time. Both shows are fun in different ways—but Frequency proves that the best time-travel stories are often the most personal ones.
In Timeless, a young history professor named Lucy (Abigail Spencer) is turned down for tenure, despite delivering a great lecture about LBJ’s penis. But she’s saved from a life of adjunct poverty when she gets recruited to protect history from time-traveling terrorists alongside soldier Wyatt (Matt Lanter) and science geek Rufus (Malcolm Barrett). Every week, they’ll visit another historical period, where Lucy—who, as a historian, obviously knows all of history in exacting detail!—will serve as the guide.
Frequency is somewhat less grandiose in its scope, but that focus helps make it more emotionally grounded. The Tomorrow People‘s Peyton List plays Raimy, a cop whose dad died 20 years ago—but suddenly, his old ham radio sparks to life, and she can talk to him in the past, on the eve of his death. She’s able to give him enough information to save his life, but as a result of her intervention, a serial killer is after her mother in 1996—and in 2016, her mother has suddenly been dead for 20 years.
But while both shows are about changing the past—Frequency‘s hero is determined to make nips and tucks to history, with the Timeless crew trying to prevent such meddlings—how they go about it couldn’t be more different. Timeless is basically every time-travel trope you can possibly imagine, served up in a cute package that feels like a 1990s show—Sliders, say, or even Time Trax. Meanwhile, Frequency, despite having the teen-idol faces and cozy Vancouver feel of virtually every other CW show, is saved by its personal constraints.
That difference is perfectly played out by in the nearly identical scene that appeared in the two series’ first episodes—in which each main character discovers that her time shenanigans have somehow altered her family. Timeless‘ Lucy no longer has a sister, her mother is no longer deathly ill, and she’s engaged. On Frequency, Raimy no longer has a mother, and her fiance no longer knows her. In Timeless, this plays as a bit of an afterthought to the time-jumping adventure; Lucy and her family have made almost no impression. But in Frequency, this moment feels like an actual gut-punch.
By contrast, the most interesting bits of Timeless have to do with not with looking backward, but with progress. Early on, Rufus points out that as an African American man, there aren’t going to be too many moments in American history that will be “awesome” for him. Later, in 1937, he has to provide a distraction so his friends can escape—so he delivers a beautiful harangue to a racist cop about what the future holds. The terrorists, we’re told, want to unmake all of the progress that America has made, by killing it in its crib.
Timeless is the brainchild, in part, of Supernatural creator Eric Kripke, while Frequency was adapted by Jeremy Carver, who was Supernatural‘s showrunner until recently. Watching these shows, you sense that Kripke misses the non-stop adventure and monster-of-the-week fun of Supernatural, while Carver seems to have come away with fond memories of the Winchester Brothers’ intense family relationships.
There have been a lot of TV shows, in the past decade, dealing with time travel or other temporal shenanigans—notably, Life on Mars, Journeyman, Continuum, Legends of Tomorrow, Flashforward, Fringe at times, and of course Doctor Who. After Frequency and Timeless, ABC is developing a show based on Time After Time, the movie about Jack the Ripper and H.G. Wells, and Fox has the comedy Making History.
And with all of these journeys into the past comes an ironic déjà vu. You know there will be paradoxes, you know time travel will have arbitrary rules that get ignored when it’s inconvenient, and you can be damn sure that people will encounter their own destinies. (In the first episode of Timeless, Lucy gets shown a diary in her own handwriting, that she doesn’t remember writing in—and the villain, Flynn tells her that she just hasn’t written it… yet. There’s no explanation for how time travel that changes a timeline can produce an artifact based on journeys that haven’t happened yet.)
The best time travel shows, though, have usually been the ones where the personal stakes are front and center, and all the mind-bending concepts are used to exacerbate a personal dilemma. So even though Timeless throws a dozen long-term mysteries at the viewer and promises lots of fun time-hopping action, Frequency seems like the more promising exploration of the time vortex. Then again, only time will tell.
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