With a ton of new shows dropping as the new fall season gets underway, we find ourselves with an embarrassment of riches on the opinionating front. It can be a slog to recap every episode of a show week in and week out, but reviewing a pilot fresh out of the gate? That’s just good clean fun.
Neither of the following merited an overblown 1800-word review, partially because each show is typical network fare, mostly composed of fluff and cliches, and partially because it’s a bit too early to get much of a handle on either of them. But opinions must be formed and stated ’round these parts, and we happen to have control of the vehicle, so we’re gonna spew.
(Sorry about all the mixed metaphors)
In truth, there was no way we weren’t going to check out the pilot of NBC’s Timeless. If you ever read our LOST or Doctor Who coverage, you know we’re suckers for a good bendy-twisty time travel tale, loaded with paradoxes, adventure and impossible ethical choices. For the pilot, Timeless managed one out of three. The good news is, it’s the most important of the three.
The one-line description of the show (helpfully provided by NBC in marketing materials), “A team is assembled to travel back in time to stop a man from destroying the future,” is practically all you need to know about the particulars of the pilot. In fact, that one-line description IS the pilot. Who is in this team? Bare-bones introduction! Who is this man they need to stop? Bare-bones introduction! How do they travel back in time? HAND WAVES GALORE. Not that we needed a treatise on the physics of time travel, but the pilot hits the ground running and doesn’t spend much time holding the audience’s hand throughout it. Nor should they, because the setup is so basic as to be almost generic.
What keeps this from being stale or boring is the rather high level of energy throughout, a cast that gels surprisingly quickly, and a somewhat decent (at the outset at least) attempt to convincingly portray historic events and people in a manner that at least looks accurate. In other words, when the team travels back in time to ensure that the Hindenburg explodes on schedule (and fails), the show does a fairly good job of portraying a 1937 that looks period-accurate. And we’re not just talking about hemlines and hairstyles here.
The team is composed of Lucy (Abigail Spencer), the kind of network TV series “historian” who knows everything about every time period, down to the most exacting details (sort of like the historian version of Gilligan’s Island‘s professor), and wears a surprising amount of eye makeup in her day-to-day life, Wyatt (Matt Lanter), a handsome special ops soldier with a secret (because of course), and Rufus, a secretive, nervous engineer on the time travel project the other two team members just go drafted into. He’s also black. This is not an incidental point, as countless comedians have noted over the years how little one tends to see black people in time travel stories. When drafted (against his will) to be part of the team, Rufus quite reasonably objects by noting that practically any period in history is going to be much worse for a black man than the present. It may be a problem for the series down the line if he’s constantly asked to “wait outside” by his teammates or forced to bow and scrape to historic racists, but for the pilot at least, this question was dealt with head on, giving Rufus a great F-you scene while still being more or less true to the history of the period. While Laura and Wyatt treated the mission as a curiosity and adventure, Rufus was pretty much terrified through the whole thing – and that’s the only response that truly makes sense for that character.
But what charmed us most about the pilot was the sense of adventure and fun that permeated it. We can’t say there was anything surprising about how time travel is being depicted. The last few minutes of the show, after the team fails to ensure that the Hindenburg disaster unfolded as it originally happened, reveal the long game here. The timeline has been altered – including some glass half-full/glass half-empty developments in Lucy’s life that will have to be undone, but will almost certainly force her to make a decision about which people in her life will be allowed to live.
In short, Timeless is fun and a little intriguing.
On the other hand, Conviction is something of a slog through a veritable thicket of cliches.
We wish we could say we loved it, because Hayley Atwell is a televisual treasure and we’d watch her in practically anything, but unfortunately, her charms are wasted on the character of Hayes Morrison. Hayes, a former first daughter whose former First Lady mother is now running for Senator (“Sexy Chelsea Clinton!” was the pitch, apparently), is a network TV version of a “bad girl,” which means she wears tight dresses a lot, stumbles through her day occasionally drunk, and makes a lot of inappropriate comments and innuendo while alluding to a coke habit. We’re supposed to believe that Hayes is an utter trainwreck of a character and that many of the other characters are repulsed by behavior. That’s a conceit that’s almost impossible to sustain when you’ve got Hayley Atwell, who practically sweats competence and charisma, struggling her way through the part. The very core of the show is problematic because the character isn’t really all that great a fit for the lead actor.
Moving past that fatal flaw, the rest of the show suffers from being stale and familiar. For various reasons that will no doubt spawn a half-dozen potboiler storylines, Hayes is installed as the head of an investigative team charged with reviewing cases of criminal conviction and re-opening them if they warrant it. We’re going to go out on a limb and suggest that every week, they’ll find a case that warrants re-opening. It’s the kind of somewhat silly, fantasy-based version of criminal investigation that tends to be all up and down the network TV dial at the moment; a small team of good-looking, mildly diverse in that network TV way (one black cop, one hispanic former convict) investigators stage ridiculous stunts and go to insane lengths to make their case. Our eyes rolled out of our heads when we got to the part where one character said with a straight face, “Now, we’ll put the other half of the pig carcass out, since the sun has gone down. If there are no flies on this half, then we know he couldn’t have committed the murder!”
And bear in mind, this is for a case that’s already been tried and resulted in a fairly rock-solid conviction. But we’re supposed to believe the investigative team is hauling bifurcated pig carcasses out in the woods in order to double-check a closed case. Come on now. And of course, by the end of the episode, every character on the investigative team is revealed to have some sort of devastating secret. All of them are lame in that Shonda Rhimes-ripoff kind of way, but presenting a “This character is secretly gay!” twist is eyeroll-worthy in 2016.
We doubt we’ll be checking back in on this one, which is a shame, because Hayley Atwell deserves better.
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