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Past is Prologue: How Escapism Could be the Next Big Network Trend
January 23, 2017  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

Not so long ago, the best TV encouraged us to face up to the real world. Now, however, a new reality looms. Nihilism is out, escapism is in. Jimmy Fallon has made the late-night talk show a safe place for goofiness. Say what you will about Sam Bee — and many have said plenty, much of it laudatory — but it’s Fallon and his Tonight Show #hashtags, thank-you notes and do-not-read lists (How to Avoid Huge Ships: Second Edition) that pull in the big numbers.

And then there’s Timeless, (top) the first-year time-travel thriller that, though awkwardly made and clunky at times, plays like a delirious, hope-filled throwback to the best of The Time Tunnel and the notion that it can be fun to play with history, just so long as you don’t change it too much.

You won’t see Abigail Spencer (right) or Matt Lanter seize the podium at any award shows where Viola Davis or Remi Malek are in the mix, and yet their Timeless characters — a history lecturer desperate to fulfill the legacy of her mother and a special-ops commando grieving over the untimely death of his young wife — are the kind of protagonists that audiences can both relate to and want to spend time with.

Timeless has been a modest if not runaway ratings success in its inaugural season, but it seems inconceivable that NBC won’t give it a second year and beyond. The tracking site TVByTheNumbers.com book on Timeless’ numbers is that it’s “stable,” thanks to a 1.36 rating in the coveted 18-49 demographic that puts it slightly ahead of NBC returnees The Blacklist (1.16) and Blindspot (1.18) and slightly behind NBC stalwarts like Chicago Fire (1.58), Law & Order: SVU (1.5) and Chicago PD (1.39).

Timeless has the usual stock villain, the duplicitous ex-NSA spook Garcia Flynn, who has stolen a working time machine — it’s fully operational! — with the intent of changing American history by going back in time and mixing things up for future generations.

In a nifty piece of casting against type — Timeless creators Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan are old hands at this — Garcia is played by Goran Visnjic, (with Spencer, right) a layered, somewhat underrated actor who wrote the book on playing warm-hearted, well-intended characters as Dr. Luka Kovac on the late, still lamented medical drama ER.

Timeless isn’t exactly Twitter clickbait, and it doesn’t have the prestige — or awards attention — of fellow TV inauguree This Is Us, but it may be the network drama that future generations look back on as being more truly representative of a moment in American history. The relationship drama thirtysomething was arguably the most talked-about show on TV at the time it aired but now, looking back, it was Dallas and Dynasty that dominated the ratings, and arguably Dallas and Dynasty that, today, seem to better reflect the attitude of the times.

The shows with awards buzz are almost always deserving. The annual Peabodys list is proof of that: Mr. Robot, black-ish, The Americans, Fargo, Jane the Virgin, Rectify, Transparent, Wolf Hall and so on.

The shows people care about, though — not those shows they feel duty bound to see but those they actually look forward to seeing each week — tend to be, like Jimmy Fallon, more about entertainment and an escape from the day’s worries than they are about enriching one’s intellect and soul. The Big Bang Theory is the Seinfeld of the ‘00s — clever, but not that clever; edgy, but not that edgy. Where Seinfeld was rooted in sarcasm and hip awareness, Big Bang Theory skates by on goofy charm. The ‘00s are marked by a sense of unease and growing anxiety, and recent events have done nothing to change that. Cocooning at home seems a natural reaction, and that’s why escapism may see a resurrection.

Going back and watching old TV shows for clues as to their times is one of the best reasons to rewind the DVR, because the most enduring shows have a way of engaging us even years into the future. What plays like mindless entertainment at the time can actually seem like reportage when viewed decades later. Who, watching Dallas at the time, could picture J.R. Ewing one day becoming energy secretary of the U.S.?

Homeland and the soon-to-return Better Call Saul — two favorites on my present-day must-watch list — are set in what just about anyone would call the real world, but the goofy charms of Timeless may well be a signpost for the near-term future. We live in a time where, for obvious reasons, people often choose to find their stories in a different reality, whether it’s superheroes out to save the world or time travelers going back in time to stop evil.
We want to be back with Drs. Douglas Phillips and Anthony Newman, holding down the fort at the Alamo or trying to convince the captain of the Titanic that no ship is unsinkable.

So far Timeless has traveled to Germany in 1944, the assassination of Abe Lincoln in 1865, the plutonium race in the Nevada desert in the early 1960s, the Watergate scandal of 1972, Bonnie and Clyde in 1930s Arkansas, the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and, yes, the Alamo as well. James Bowie and Davy Crockett still die in the Timeless version, but it takes real sacrifice on the part of Lucy and Wyatt to preserve the timeline as it should be.

All’s well in the end, though. Sometimes, as TV executives know well, we hope to escape the present by taking refuge in the past.

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Dan Langhoff
I'd argue "realism" (to a bleak fault) peaked in the post-war 70's--especially in film, later in TV. Seems like the pendulum has been swinging to fantasy and escapism ever since; any hope for correction was obliterated by our curious reaction to 9/11. Witness all the "comic book" properties.

Since most of the escapist fare involves (unrealistic) violence every 5-10 minutes, AND this genre dominates programming, I wonder if there are any studies on how this affects world views.
Jan 23, 2017   |  Reply
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