Timeless appeal

Of all the current TV shows about time travel, the last one I imagined would be in trouble is Timeless. But apparently while it’s doing fine in streaming video, iTunes, downloads, catch up and every other way you can watch television now, it’s struggling to find viewers who tune in to NBC on Monday nights.

I can’t watch NBC, I’m in the UK. It’s airing here on E4 but even if it got record-breaking ratings everywhere else in the world, NBC would at the very most say that’s nice before they cancelled it. What counts for them and therefore for the show is eyeballs on NBC. So if you’re in the States and especially if you happen to be one of the households that the Nielsen ratings counts, do take a look at it.

It’s just good. I’ve been a professional TV critic and that’s all I can usefully say. I’ve also been obsessed with time all my writing life and Timeless is the time travel show that isn’t about time travel. I’m not interested in time machines, I’m obsessed with regret and with experiencing events from different angles. Timeless has plenty of regret but it’s also a deep-dive into an adventure series which specifically avoids Doctor Who-style timey-wimey stories.

In this show created by Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke, our three heroes continue their pursuit of a baddie. Calling them the heroes is reasonable: they are the protagonists and while we’re seeing widening gulfs in whether they’re good or not, they are doing what they do with the best of intentions. Calling their antagonist the baddie is more of a stretch, though, as unusually this fella has good reason for what he does.

So there he is doing something foul yet there’s a part of you that can’t help but at least understand why, maybe even agree.

I’m compelled by that but I’m also just relishing how each week is broadly similar in shape but totally different in tone and location. There was an episode set during the Alamo which really felt like movie. Ian Fleming pops up in a Bond-like adventure fighting the Nazis. The good guys got stranded in the 1700s. The good guys kill people and they don’t exactly shrug about it afterwards.

I also relish how since the show is set in different historical periods, the research is excellent and there’s always something true yet completely unexpected. I heard that some history classes are using the show for that and I don’t know if it’s true, especially so soon into its run, but I can understand it.

Only, as a time obsessive, the thing that feels fresh and fun to me is that the show goes into history and messes it up. It has been such a rule of time travel stories that you do not do this: Back to the Future centres on putting right something that got changed. Even Doctor Who, right back in the William Hartnell days, maintained that “You can’t rewrite history… Not one line!”

So here’s Timeless where – sorry, spoiler – the baddie has gone back to the day the Hindenburg exploded and he saves it. You know from the start that he’s going to do something bad but, grief, hats off to Timeless: the bad thing he does is save it. And then we learn why that’s such a bad thing: it’s fascinating.

It’s also fascinating back in the present day of the show as people who died on the Hindenburg now didn’t so there are ramifications and repercussions. Throughout the series, the baddie and eventually the goodies kill people and it’s necessary, you can see it, you kind of root for them, but there are repercussions.

Well, there are and there aren’t. There’s not yet been a repercussion where the goodies’ time machine wasn’t ever invented, for instance.

What this willingness of the show to let history change gives me is the impact on the characters. They’re not required to be some model citizens protecting the fabric of the spacetime continuum, they are scared people trying everything they can to stop very, very bad things happening.

So Timeless is a show about time travel, sure, but it’s about characters who travel in time and what that is like for them. It’s action adventure, it’s not as astonishingly deep into time as 12 Monkeys is, it’s not using a TARDIS as just a way to drop the Doctor into trouble.

It’s something new and that seems especially gratifying in a season where even I think there are too many time travel dramas.

I’ve forgotten the count now but I remember learning that there would be something more than ten, possible fifteen shows about time during this year and there’s no way they’ll all survive. But the one I’d miss is Timeless.

So if you can watch NBC on Monday nights, please do. And while I’m in the UK where E4 is now screening the show, I’ve got a US iTunes account so I’m watching each week as soon as it’s available.

Grant Tinker, the writers’ producer

Grant Tinker died this week aged 90. I’ve been thinking that it’s curious being in the UK because he wasn’t well known here – except he probably wasn’t that generally known in his home USA either. But if you had heard of him, what you heard was brilliant. And if you hadn’t, you still saw him through his incredible work that brought us Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere, my own favourite Lou Grant and just an impossibly long list of more.

He didn’t create any of those shows. He didn’t write any of them. He wasn’t a producer or a director or an actor.

He was what’s still sometimes called a suit. He was a network executive and if any other exec has ever had an obituary then it was on the back pages of Variety or Broadcast. Google Grant Tinker’s name and you’ll see a flood of tributes, every one of which says something along the lines that obituaries always say someone was great but in this case it’s true.

Listen, obituaries always say someone was great but in this case it’s true.

I never met him and he never once heard of me. But I hoped to engineer a way to get to interview him. Back in 2004 I went to Los Angeles specifically to work in UCLA reading the Lou Grant papers in the Gene Reynolds collection. I’ve still yet to get a publisher to commission a book about the show but my interview wishlist here has Grant Tinker on it. Had Grant Tinker.

Here’s an example of why. I can’t remember which show this happened in and in the flood of tributes to the man Google isn’t helping me find it, but it’s a writers’ story so of course I love it.

I think the show may even have been The Mary Tyler Moore Show: little known here and now very dated in the States but in its time important, groundbreaking and funny.

Two writers are in a meeting with some higher up network TV executives. The show hasn’t started yet, they’re still developing it and this was an important meeting. Important enough that Tinker was there too.

The writers have this meeting and leave, very pleased with how it went.

As soon as they are out of the door, though, the execs order Grant Tinker to fire them.

Not only did he not do it, he never told the writers and it was years before they found out. They’d gone off happily and created a smash-hit series.

That’s typical of the reasons I so very much admired this man. He would hire writers and other creative people, then let them get on with it and protect them. Compare this to today when a US drama can’t cast the very smallest of walk-on, one-line parts without the network approving their choice.

It’s a coarse summary to say that US network television is now run by companies more experienced in accounting and finance than drama. It’s even coarser to say that the less they know about television, the more they interfere. But it’s entirely accurate to say that US network TV is in a bad state, even as cable television companies like HBO are making this a golden age of American drama.

Grant Tinker’s approach turned around the fortunes of NBC in the 1970s and 80s. It went from third and last position to first because of the shows he choose and nurtured. His reputation meant that NBC became the network that the best creative people wanted to work for, wanted to pitch to.

It’s commonplace and easy to conclude an obit by saying that we won’t see the likes of this man again. But we haven’t yet and my favourite dramatic medium needs more Grant Tinkers.