TV Rewind: In Praise of Timeless’ Patriotic Commitment to the Hopeful, Messy American Experiment

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TV Rewind: In Praise of <i>Timeless</i>&#8217; Patriotic Commitment to the Hopeful, Messy American Experiment

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below. This week, a favorite from our vault:

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When I was young, I’d read stories about great heroes doing great deeds. The truth is, real heroes don’t look at all like I pictured. They’re far from perfect. Bull-headed, stubborn, reckless. And also recklessly brave. They charge in without a thought to themselves. Not without fear or doubt, but in spite of it. We are all scared. But we are going to fight and die anyway, to give everyone else a chance at a better future. Because the future matters. Victory or death. Signed, the men and women of the Alamo. [distant patriotic music] —Lucy’s letter from the Alamo, from the transcript of Timeless Season 1, Episode 5

I don’t know what patriotism is.

Or rather, I don’t know what patriotism is for you. I know that for me, patriotism is not static. It is not found in the June/July aisles of the local Target Dollar Spot. It is not defined by standing at the right moment or singing the right songs. For me, patriotism is a dynamic, striving, hopeful thing prowling through every part of life, eyes open to the best and worst parts of our short national history, forever pressing America to hold itself up to its founding ideals. For me, it is we, the people, redeeming the mistakes of those who came before us to make the hardness of our history a little easier for the future. For me, it is gratitude for the cosmic blackjack of having been born white in America while also acknowledging my civic responsibility to do the work to make that dream accessible for others.

And for two, too-short seasons, it was also for me the profoundly humane patriotism of NBC’s action-packed time-travel joint, Timeless, in which heroes Lucy (Abigail Spencer), Wyatt (Matt Lanter), and Rufus (Malcolm Barrett) thrust themselves through time not to save the universe, world, or (to each of their personal regrets) individual loved ones, but rather to stave off the possible destruction of the American experiment, whose democratic promise of liberty, equality and refuge for all is both singular and—as we become increasingly aware by the day—shatteringly delicate.

I don’t mean to sound flip by pulling a television show featuring warring time machines and lovers, friends, and family members variously yanked into and out of existence by time-traveling villains into a discussion of patriotism. I am not being flip. When news broke that NBC had finally dropped the curtain on Timeless, the series’ fans—myself included—were heartbroken, and not just because the killer 1-2-3 punch of a cliffhanger the show left us with proved that in terms of the time-traveling adventure story, they were only just getting started. We were heartbroken because, in the Year of Our Twitter 2018 [Editor’s Note: and today], fewer things are as relevant to the digital colloquy as 1) fan-favorite genre television; and 2) what it means to be an American citizen. And Timeless, with its deep commitment to using time travel as a narrative frame to interrogate what it means to respect America’s revolutionary democratic aspirations—even when Americans at too many points in history haven’t lived up to them—did not just feel custom-made for the current conversation. It felt like a model for how to do the work of writing through this newest hard chapter in the American story, inclusive of everyone who wants to be a part of it.

This is not me projecting: The inclusion of every kind of American and every kind of American story—and an unflinching honesty about the difficulty those in the margins have historically faced—was baked into the show from its conception. The pilot episode opens with a female journalist pushing past male colleagues to risk her life to document the Hindenburg disaster as it unfolds; 11 minutes later, back in the present, Rufus responds to the news that he’ll have to pilot Lucy and Wyatt back to the 1930s by flatly reminding his boss, “I am BLACK. There is literally no place in American history that will be awesome for me.” A few minutes after that, the trio’s arrival in 1937 is marked by Rufus disembarking a public bus alone. “So the back of the bus was amazing,” he deadpans.

“#Timeless allowed us to interact with heroes that history forgot or mis-categorized…” one of the show’s writers, Arike Lisanne Mittman, tweeted after news came down that Sony had exhausted all possible rescue outlets. “[M]en, women, POC, LGBT individuals. Because American history belongs to us all. If you take anything away from this show, please remember this…”

Later in the series, the team interacts with Black soldiers newly freed by the end of the Civil War and looking to reconnect with family members who’d been sold off to other plantations. With the Space Race’s Katherine Johnson, Black U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, and Black Indian U.S. Marshall Grant Johnson. With scientific autodidact Hedy Lamarr, the women caught up in the Salem Witch Trials, and those on both sides of the suffragette movement. They partner up/butt heads with Harriet Tubman in her Civil War role as The General; Chinese immigrants in San Francisco in the years immediately following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; even the younger version of their boss, Agent Christopher (Sakina Jaffrey), who is not yet out to her Indian family and whose future wife and children are in danger of being lost.

But it’s not simply the fact that the Time Team—whose principal support crew, beyond the happily married Indian American Agent Christopher, is made up of Black Brit/rich genius Conor Mason (Paterson Joseph) and punk rock Lebanese-American engineering wunderkind Jiya (Claudia Doumit)—interacts with “heroes that history forgot or mis-categorized.” It’s that, through these interactions, the team is reminded time and again how each one of these heroes is explicitly wrapped up in the project of advancing America’s founding promises to eventually, hopefully, establish liberty and opportunity for all, and that any error they make as interlopers from the future has the potential to obviate the critical work being done by all those heroes known and forgotten in America’s past.

This is the central tension that the Time Team faces throughout their adventures: What it means to let the very particular history of this country—more often ugly, unjust, and frustrating than any of us even now want to admit—stand, when they have every ability to tip history in another direction. To save Lincoln. To not let Nazi rocket engineer Werner von Braun get off easy with Operation Paperclip. To help a teenage JFK escape his fate. To save the Alamo.

“We would come back to a future we wouldn’t recognize,” Lucy tells Rufus in the series’ second episode, as they simultaneously argue about whether saving Lincoln would be right and set up the Time Team’s philosophy moving forward. “Who knows if it would be better? Or if there’d even be a future to come back to? The present isn’t perfect, but it’s ours. Awful as it is.”

But for all this could read like so much fatalism meant to absolve them of any guilt for not trying to make American more just, more quickly, I read it—and the show plays it, by having its antagonists only ever try to derail the trajectories of the people who made it through history making America better—as a call to patriotic arms. Lucy and Wyatt and Rufus become the dynamic, prowling, hopeful force American democracy needs to protect it, redeeming the mistakes of those who came before not by changing the past, but by remaining true to who they are as human beings who care for other human beings and never letting the past change them.

Twenty-six episodes in all, and not once did any of the show’s heroes become inured to the injustices and suffering perpetrated by America, for America in the past. If they could never lose hope, as they persevered, in America’s promise of justice and equality for all, then neither can we.

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Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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