Sorry, Not Sorry: NBC’s Timeless resists the “serialized rabbit hole,” and is better for it

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Timeless—debuting tonight at 10/9c on NBC—is a strikingly old-fashioned television show at its core.

This is not intended as a slight—the show is, inherently, a throwback to the likes of Quantum Leap or something like Sliders, where episodic time travel is used as an anchor for a combination of standalone adventures and ongoing thematic character work. And when executive producers Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan arrived to present the show as part of NBC’s press tour presentation, they weren’t hiding this old-fashionedness. Where some shows might have run away screaming from the idea of being a throwback to a late 80s time traveling procedural as three characters (a professor, a former soldier, and a technician) travel through time to stop a would-be terrorist, they were more than happy to cite Quantum Leap as an inspiration point, even as a contrast to a more “quality” time travel brand like 12 Monkeys.

It’s a refreshing position, although a somewhat uncommon one, and one that somewhat contradicts the way the show’s pilot contorts itself to assure the viewer that it contains meaningful serialized elements: like most modern pilots, Timeless ends with lots of complications that create questions for future episodes, an instant mythology that will play out over the course of the coming season. But whereas I could imagine a world where the producers promised that this wasn’t “just a procedural,” Ryan insisted something different on the show’s panel: “this isn’t a show that is going to fall down a serialized rabbit hole.”

If we were to generalize about procedural storylines, it is a business imperative: the logic of episodic storytelling is long-term syndication value, a premise that can comfortably sustain 22 episodes a season—which is the plan for Timeless—and run for years, creating a large-enough bank of standalone episodes to sell to local affiliates, cable channels, and streaming sites. Shows are designed this way not because it’s the most interesting creative choice, but rather because it’s the creative choice that best creates a market for that programming, which also remains highly successful in the global marketplace.

But by making the promise that the show wouldn’t fall down the serialized rabbit hole, Ryan wasn’t speaking to his NBC or Sony—the show’s production studio—bosses. He was speaking to critics, and by extension audiences, and thus evokes a creative imperative to procedural storytelling. It calls to mind a series of procedural/serial hybrids that had similar pilots to Timeless, establishing teams and tying their work to a larger mythology, but which eventually gave themselves over to that mythology, often with muddled results. The first example that comes to mind for me is Fringe—while it’s true the first season’s embrace of episodic storytelling felt more like a network mandate than a creative choice, the beginning of the third season struck an incredible balance between the two forms, and then that balance disappeared in subsequent seasons. It wasn’t that the show became too complicated for me to follow—it’s that its desire to be complicated muddled its storytelling, losing track of why I’d connected with the show in the first place.

That Ryan would cite this “rabbit hole” as a concern is a testament to his awareness of the perils of working within this hybridized storytelling model: he cites a clear strategy of “80/20” when it comes to procedural/serial balance in an average episode, noting the traditional strategy of the beginnings and ends of episodes placing focus on the latter. It’s a strategy that’s common across the genre, including on a show like NBC’s Blindspot, which presented for its upcoming second season with similar concerns at hand. When I asked creator Martin Gero about the plans for the second season, he called it a “reset,” not in terms of their overall approach to their show but in their desire to return to a simpler structure to avoid getting lost in their serial storyline. The central mystery from last season was “resolved”—with reverberations throughout the season, of course—in the opening episode a few weeks ago, clearing the way for a new dynamic that can return to the “tattoo of the week” structure that the first season was built around.

The concerns with Blindspot and Timeless are linked: much as Gero cites the desire to potentially welcome new viewers—whether as fans of arriving co-star Archie Panjabi or simply those who are watching TV during the series’ new Wednesday 8pm timeslot—as the desire to unravel some of the serialized intrigue built at the end of last season, Ryan and Kripke don’t want to limit their audience to those who want to commit to hyper-serialization. And while this comes from a place of wanting to maximize their audience and serve the imperative of true “broad” broadcasters like NBC, both Ryan and Gero’s comments frame this as an audience-focused concern, acknowledging that their audiences—both actual and theoretical—tune into these hybridized shows for different reasons than they might tune into the latest serialized puzzle show.

This rhetoric was particularly fascinating to me because of how it was bound to contrast the rhetoric the following day, when USA and Syfy—both from NBC’s stable of cable channels—came with shows that are very obviously moving in the opposite direction. For Syfy, this is not exactly novel: this is the channel of Battlestar Galactica, and more recently Syfy has committed to a range of serialized science fiction as part of a turn back toward more explicit genre fare. But Syfy made a similar push into the procedural space with shows like Eureka (2006), Warehouse 13 (2009) and Haven (2010). Incorporated, a speculative fiction dystopia where corporations rule the world coming in November, continues Syfy’s move away from these series’ episodic storytelling, focused on mythology and characterization and worldbuilding. It’s a show that started as a movie pitch and became a TV show based on market demand, and it shows in a pilot that gives little sense of what the show will look like on a week-to-week basis.

And then there’s Falling Water, which further extends USA’s move away from the days of its “Blue Skies” procedurals by doubling down on a high-concept premise—shared dreaming and a conspiracy rooted in it—without adding the kind of structural elements that could sustain long-form storytelling. I wrote a review for The A.V. Club  where I explored the ramifications of this, but essentially all the reasons I had issues with the show were the reasons USA wanted to make it: they want to make a show “like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos,” and they want to prove that Mr. Robot “wasn’t a fluke,” and so while I don’t think the pilot makes a good argument for the show it’s successfully communicating that serialized rabbit holes are more than fine on NBC Universal’s cable channels at the moment.

The fact that such a rabbit hole would be problematic on broadcast could be read as an inherent limitation to a series like Timeless, and I imagine that some will watch and feel like its basic procedural engine doesn’t offer the type of storytelling they want to invest in. But while I understand where this instinct comes from, it also doesn’t really make sense to me, as there is an inherent pleasure to watching as a procedural engine is developed alongside its characters, evolving as the writers discover new ways to tell stories and new ways to contribute to ongoing arcs without entirely blowing up their premise to do so. While it may be ultimately a byproduct of the commercial imperative of broadcast television, the “80/20” model Timeless represents is an intriguing creative challenge and something that can be a nice break from the deluge of mythology being “falling” onto us in other instances. Timeless wants audiences to be hooked into its central questions, but it also wants you to know that its main goal is to transport you to another time, give you a satisfying ending to that journey, and then slingshot you into the next week excited for more adventure.

It won’t win Emmys, sure, but it’s sometimes a better way to spend an hour of your time.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Sorry, Not Sorry: NBC’s Timeless resists the “serialized rabbit hole,” and is better for it

  1. Comparing this pilot to Sliders or Quantum Leap does it no favors. Both of those shows had stronger hooks behind them, and more engaging performances from the supporting actors.

    What the pilot communicated to me was that the stories and characters I could expect would be Genre Writing 101, with no plot points or character traits I haven’t seen, done better, dozens of times over.

    So when they say they’re not going to delve into a mythology, I think they might just be trying to lower expectations of how much thought they’re going to be putting in. It’s not like the pilot wasn’t bogged down with uninteresting mysteries.

  2. Karl Ruben

    After a handful of episodes, I feel like the premise of the show might be actively working against the desired 80/20 model. The stakes as set up in the pilot still seem too high for the relatively low urgency required by the arc-plotting in a procedural. The week-to-week wheel-spinning of a procedural feels slightly infuriating (at least irritating) when the stakes of the arc plot (and even the weekly cases) are so very high. The best two procedurals of the last years, Elementary and Person of Interest, show that it’s possible for shows like this to put serial elements both on the front- and backburner and still feel satisfying both short and long term. Timeless tried to do too much too soon, and the utility of its procedural engine seems compromised as a result.

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