“Timeless” A New Television Show That Will Work Your Mind

timeless1

If it’s fall, then it is time for the new programs to hit the television screen from not only the traditional networks but also cable and streaming services. Most of the time the programs presented – especially by the traditional network outlets – are simply retreads of past programs that do little to engage the audience or test their thinking capabilities. But there are some programs that have come out that might be worth checking out. We’ll take a look at a few of them over the next couple of weeks, but let’s start with the best of the lot.

NBC has been the purveyor of some excellent programs over the past few years. It’s been three years since The Blacklist premiered on the Peacock Channel and, just last year, NBC put on another fine action-drama with Blindspot. They may have topped themselves, however, with their most recent entry, Timeless.

Timeless is the story of Lucy Preston (actor Abigail Spencer), a college professor with an ailing, bedridden mother and her stay at home sister, Amy, who takes care of her while Lucy attempts to gain tenure and follow in her mother’s footsteps. Things take a turn, however, when the college she teaches at (and where her mother was quite famous) refuses to grant her tenure, leaving her in a difficult spot. That changes when Homeland Security calls Lucy in for a project.

Coming into a warehouse, Lucy is dumbfounded to meet Connor Mason (Paterson Joseph), a brilliant scientist who has been working on undisclosed “experiments” for the government. According to Homeland Security agent Denise Christopher (Sakina Jaffrey), one of Mason’s projects was a time machine that, after a raid by terrorists led by Garcia Flynn (Goran Visnjic, who has been making an excellent living playing bad guys of late…or is he…well, not yet), has been stolen. Flynn and his cohorts have taken the time machine back to May 6, 1937.

hindenburg

As a historian, Lucy knows the significance of the date. It is the day the Hindenburg exploded upon landing in Lakehurst, NJ, but she still doesn’t understand why she’s there to help Mason and the government. Mason explains that, with her knowledge and background in history, she is the best person to send to make sure that history doesn’t change, lest something happens and the “future” from 1937 is altered. Mason explains that there is a creaky prototype of the “Mothership” (the time capsule stolen by Flynn), but it only holds three riders; going along with Lucy on the trip are Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter), a military man (probably Navy Seal from his apparent expertise) who has recently lost his wife and will provide the muscle for the team, and Rufus Carlin (Malcolm Barrett), a computer wizard and engineer on the creation of the “Mothership” who can handle the prototype and get it to and from whatever period of time they have to enter and return.

Upon reaching the flight line where the Hindenburg is landing, the threesome notice that the ground crew (the men catching the lines dropped by the dirigible to anchor the ship) are keeping the ropes off the ground, long thought to have been a theory as the cause for the grounding of the ship and the subsequent spark that set off the hydrogen gas in the blimp. The trio also see Flynn among the ground crew (having told them to keep the lines off the ground) and make chase, but are unable to catch him. Thus they have failed in their mission – keeping history the way it is known – and now must figure out why Flynn wanted to change it.

timeless2

Doing some research, Lucy learns that many noteworthy people – bankers, politicians, royalty and the elite – will be on the return flight of the Hindenburg to attend the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in England (which actually was supposed to happen in “our” history) and that Flynn is potentially looking to destroy the ship at that time to have the maximum impact on the future. Meanwhile, Wyatt hooks up with a reporter who reminds him of his deceased wife (and who was supposed to be one of the people killed on the ground in the original history of the crash), who doesn’t quite believe their story but does help them on their trek.

Our set of adventurers eventually end up in jail after killing one of Flynn’s associates (and finding a detonator in his pocket) and, in an attempt to escape to stop Flynn from destroying the Hindenburg, Rufus – who had previously stated to Mason that he didn’t want to go on the mission because as a black man “there isn’t a time in history that was good for me” – causes enough of a ruckus that the police come in, billy clubs brandished, ready to beat him senseless. This gives Wyatt enough time to pick the lock and, with Rufus’ help, immobilize the guards to stop Flynn.

The threesome board the Hindenburg and find the bomb, but are unable to stop it from exploding. They do, however, save everyone on board after forcibly taking over the ship and making it land, thus giving the passengers the quickest way off. During the resulting hubbub, Lucy comes face-to-face with Flynn and, to be honest, this is where it gets a bit interesting.

Flynn tells Lucy that he is looking to preserve history for the better, not destroy it, and tells her to ask Christopher about a certain group known only as “Rittenhouse.” He also shows her a diary that, to Lucy’s horror, is in her handwriting and apparently talks about the trips that are in the future. Wyatt comes upon them and tries to shoot Flynn, but he returns fire and misses Wyatt but hits the female reporter behind Wyatt after he jumps out of the way and kills her. With the Hindenburg now destroyed, the adventurers return to present time not knowing what they’ll find when they get there.

At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be much wrong other than some altering affected by the crew’s forcible crash landing of the blimp. The team has learned that Flynn is there to alter U. S. history but, even though the history of the Hindenburg has been slightly altered and the passengers who were killed in the original history survived (while none perished in the new historical trek), there doesn’t appear to be much out of line. Christopher sends the team home, at which point the show takes another stunning turn for one of the characters.

Lucy returns home and calls out for her sister but, to her utter amazement, her mother calls for her and comes out of the kitchen. A flabbergasted Lucy breaks down in tears at the sight of her mother in vigorous health (remember, she departed with her mother bedridden), but she still wants to know where Amy is. Her mother doesn’t know what or who she’s talking about and, to Lucy’s horror, she picks up a photo that used to feature the three Preston women that now just features Lucy and her mother. As the pilot ends, Lucy is called back by Christopher as Flynn has taken off to another point in history in the “Mothership.”

The second episode – which dealt with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – is pretty much along the same lines, but a couple more twists are tossed in. Rufus and Mason now seem to be in cahoots as Mason has Rufus recording all the interactions between him, Wyatt and Lucy while they are on their missions, with those recordings going to the shadowy group that Flynn talked about with Lucy after the Hindenburg crash. Second, upon returning from the Lincoln mission, Lucy learns that her father in her original history met and married one of the survivors of the Hindenburg disaster and that is the reason why Amy doesn’t exist. This also leads Lucy to wonder about her OWN background (logically) and, lacking an answer on that front and returning home, finds another change in her history as her mother is throwing a party for her wedding engagement (imagine if you walked in and your mother was doing THAT for you!).

Personally, I’ve always held a fascination with alternative history (if you’ll remember, I was also big on The Man in the High Castle last year) and this show definitely taps into that vein. It goes back to the conundrum about a variation of the Grandfather Paradox known as the Hitler Paradox – if you could go back in history and kill Hitler before he begins World War II, would you do it? The problem with these types of questions – and something that is done well in Timeless (albeit only to Lucy right now – it is supposed to also affect Wyatt and Rufus at some point) – is that changing any point in past history would have an effect on what occurs in the future.

HighCastle

Without Hitler and let’s just add in World War II also, would the United States have achieved all it did as a world superpower? Would there have been the Korean War, the attempts to stop the Russians and the Domino Theory? Maybe someone who died in WWII would go on to commit worse atrocities than Hitler? Would nuclear weapons have been developed? There’s plenty to think about there (and it does apply to everyone’s life – change one thing in your past and it would alter who you are today).

Timeless taps into this uncertainty and, while Lucy, Wyatt and Rufus are attempting to keep history as they know it correct, there are just enough things that they don’t or can’t prevent that it still has an impact on the present day world (Lucy’s sister disappearing, her mother healthy, etc.). What happens, for example, if they come back from a mission and Wyatt’s wife is suddenly alive? Does he quit? And what about Rufus? What is his purpose and why is he recording the crew?

timeless3

The possibilities are endless with this show. Future episodes are looking (and this is from my own knowledge of history and the titles of each episode) at the Manhattan Project, the siege of the Alamo and the Watergate burglary, but there is a wealth of situations that could be investigated. The characters are what keep you interested, critical for any drama, as you try to figure out if Lucy goes mad at some point from all the changes in her personal history, which in some way causes Flynn to start his criminal (hey, we’ve yet to figure out if it is criminal or not, remember) actions, can Wyatt overcome the loss of his wife and the mystery of Rufus (not to mention Morgan, Christopher and this mysterious organization).

Airing at 10PM on Mondays after The Voice, Timeless is a way to test your mind and expand your thinking while being entertained at the same time, making it a fresh show amidst the mindless banter out there (really, do we have to see Kevin James doing a new version of King of Queens? He really isn’t that funny to begin with!).

“The Man in the High Castle” Is Captivating Television

It has been some time since we took a look at some of the new offerings from the movie, television or music worlds and that is a good thing. First of all, I’m not going to waste your time telling you about something that is completely awful (I know I said Quantico wasn’t very good, but it hasn’t been canceled yet…that means some people must like it). If I am going to take the time to offer up something, 9 out of 10 times it is going to be worth checking out (or at least I think so). That is what we have when we look at a new offering that has just been released.

HighCastle

There is a completely new world out there when it comes to the streaming services. The days of when these outlets simply provided a way to catch the latest movies or watch an old show (or a new one) are causing rapid changes in what they offer. Part of their attractiveness is that they can be watched over virtually any device. In the beginning it was just computers, then the outlets branched into tablets, cellphones and video game devices. Now, the HDTVs that come out (with the spanking new 4K technology and “smart” TV capabilities) have one or more of these streaming outlets pre-programmed on them.

Maybe it is because of the above that the streaming outlets made the moves they did. Such outlets as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu Plus have decided to swan-dive into the deep end of the pool and produce their own shows rather than just offer the other networks’ material (and, in most cases, pay out the ass for the programming). Since I wasn’t around for the start of House of Cards or even Orange is the New Black, I am trying to find something that I can get into that is new to many (and can take over while I wait for the spring session of Blindspot and the second season of Mr. Robot to start) and it appears that Amazon has the next big thing.

Released on November 20, The Man in the High Castle is a ten-episode series that was foisted on the public all at once, meaning you can take it in the traditional episodic doses or can fully immerse yourself in it through a “binge.” This method of “broadcasting” (hey, it’s the only term I can think of that applies) has its pros and cons; it does allow you to blast through it in one big marathon but, if you take it one or two episodes at a time, you might forget that you are watching it and not go back to the series (confession:  I DVRed The Player, meaning to watch it but never did. It was canceled two episodes into its run). With High Castle, I sincerely doubt that someone is going to forget they have it in the library.

The series is based on the book of the same name written by one of the great minds of U. S. literature, Philip K. Dick. Dick, who wrote the science fiction classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that eventually became the basis for the classic 1982 film Blade Runner (one of my personal favorites), this time steps into the alternative history genre and has the same impact there that he had with science fiction. The person who brought High Castle to the air, Frank Spotnitz (best known for his work on The X-Files), also deserves kudos for producing an excellent product.

The year is 1962, ten years removed from “V-A Day,” or the day that Nazi Germany and the forces of Imperial Japan defeated the United States in World War II. As a part of the peace, the Nazis take over the Eastern part of the United States virtually all the way to the Rocky Mountains, renaming it the Greater Nazi Reich; the Japanese, for their efforts, take over from the West Coast to the Rockies with their Japanese Pacific States. Between the two, running the ridges of the Rockies, is a Neutral Zone to separate the Nazis and the Japanese that has become an area to provide living space for segments of society (minorities, homosexuals and other “deviants”) that would otherwise be persecuted or even killed for who or what they are.

It is a tenuous peace between the two international powers, however. An aging Adolf Hitler is in failing health and, as Himmler and Goebbels jockey for position to take over from him, the Japanese grow concerned that Hitler’s death would result in warfare that would force them out of the former United States. Since the end of WWII, Germany has become a technological powerhouse, developing the hydrogen bomb and planes that fly from New York to San Francisco in two hours, while Japan has languished in its imperial peace. This is an important part of the program, but it isn’t the only plotline to pay attention to as the show continues.

The show opens up with a young man, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), visiting a factory in New York City on the seemingly innocent premise of looking for a job. He strolls through a totalitarian Times Square replete with the Nazi swastika burnished on video boards and flags and, upon reaching the factory, finds the manager. As we sit in on their meeting, we discover it isn’t for a job in the factory; Joe is being hired to drive a truck across the Greater Nazi Reich to Canon City, a town in the Neutral Zone, for The Resistance, a rebel alliance looking to oust the Nazis from the country.

After demonstrating his will to do the job, Joe gets the keys from the manager just as Nazi troops raid the factory. While the bullets fly, Joe is able to get away from the factory intact, but everyone else is not so lucky. The Nazis summarily execute everyone who was in the factory save for the manager, who is taken into custody and, as we find out through the first episode, tortured mercilessly.

As Joe is doing this, we go to San Francisco where another part of the story is developing. Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), who has assimilated nicely into a post-war Japanese society (taking aikido lessons and embracing their medicinal and cultural offerings), is stunned to meet up with her half-sister who tells her she has a great new job. Later in the evening, Juliana and her sister meet again under much more dire circumstances; Juliana’s sister hands her a package and cryptically tells her to take care of it before running away. As Juliana hides in the shadows, Japanese soldiers execute her sister in the street.

Running home, a perplexed Juliana (why would soldiers kill her sister) looks in the bag her sister gave to her. In the bag is a film entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and, after viewing the reel, Juliana discovers it is an alternate reality film based on what happened if the Allies had instead won World War II (you with me so far?). Spurred to action by watching the film and the death of her sister, Juliana leaves her boyfriend (Rupert Evans) who hides that he is part Jewish, a crime punishable by death even in the Japanese Pacific States, and heads for Canon City with a ticket procured for her sister to make the trip.

The remainder of the first episode brings our protagonists to Canon City. Blake has what might be called an uneventful run but discovers that, out on the Great Plains, hospitals are crematoriums for the sickly and elderly instead of healing (remember, that’s Nazi Country). Juliana has her own issues, with a female passenger on the bus she is taking to Canon City mysteriously stealing her belongings but not the movie reels. The first episode ends with a twist that I honestly didn’t see coming and, after seeing it, nearly made me rocket into the second episode rather than allowing the first one to sink in fully.

Beyond the point that we have several different plotlines intersecting in this one hour – the impending death of Hitler and the potential for war between the Nazi and Japanese, the trips of both Blake and Crain to Canon City to do what isn’t exactly known and the film (is it possible it’s true?) and its purpose – there is an attention to detail in creating the false reality of “this” divided U. S. nation that is remarkable. There are far too many things to point out that helped to convey the dread and dismay of the conditions of living in such a situation and, with the supporting cast, all viewpoints are offered (Crain’s mother hates the Japanese for killing her husband; Blake meets a police officer who was in the U. S. military but now accepts his fate with the Nazis). It potentially indicates that there are some deeper analogies that we might see in the future of the program.

The Man in the High Castle also showed me that there is a new reality to the future of television. Unrestrained by broadcast guidelines or traditional “broadcasting times,” these shows being put out by the streaming networks are quality works that should demand a great deal more attention from the viewing public. If every program was of the high quality that High Castle is, then there would be a greater impetus to “cut the cord” from normal cable and network broadcasting, which have become staid with their product.

If you haven’t had a chance to check out these streaming channels, you’re missing out on what could be a bountiful arena of choices for your viewing pleasure. You’re definitely missing out on one of the best programs of the year with The Man in the High Castle; I’d suggest climbing onboard the wagon soon for both the show and for the streaming channels.

“Blindspot” A Grey Story That Keeps You Guessing; “Quantico” Misses the Mark

If the calendar has passed the Autumnal Equinox, it must be time for the newest television shows to hit the airwaves of the traditional television networks. Usually these new programs are retreads of past tropes (cop shows! buddy comedies! fish out of water situations!) or are as intriguing as watching a hangnail, which is pretty much the reason that many viewers have left the traditional networks for the various cable, pay networks (HBO, Showtime, etc.) or the growing streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, etc.). Still, there are a few shows that will break out for the networks and make it worthwhile to watch commercials.

It is estimated that the major television networks call for somewhere between 20-60 “pilots” to be filmed that will give them a crop to go over and decided which are worthy of airing (or, on the other hand, give them fodder for what used to be the “slower” summer schedule). Cable networks may be counted in this as, once a network has decided to pass on a particular project, it may be revived by such networks as TBS, TNT, FX and others for their channel. This doesn’t stop the cable networks – nor the pay networks or the streaming services – from doing their own thing, however, so it’s conceivable that there could be somewhere around 100-150 pilots out there, of which potentially just 20-40 make the cut.

In 2013, there were a grand total of 26 new series’ (comedic, dramas and reality) that premiered on the major television networks. Of that number, only seven (including the outstanding The Blacklist and the iffy Brooklyn Nine-Nine) survived to come back the next season. In 2014, the number of premieres stayed almost the same (25) as did the survival rate (8). For 2015, the number has dropped to 17 and, by the end of the year (hell, maybe by the end of October), we’ll probably have a good idea as to how many of those will come back for a second season next fall.

One of those that should have a long shelf life (or the potential is there for it to have one) is the new NBC series Blindspot (Mondays at 10PM Eastern Time). From the start, the show lays down its premise very well – after Times Square is cleared out due to a duffel bag left in the street, an amnesiac woman emerges from said bag completely covered in intricate tattoos on her naked body – in that this Jane Doe (Jaimie Alexander) is the key to something. That’s where the story gets a bit grey, though, and it serves to pull the viewer into the program while giving out drips of information along the way.

FBI Special Agent Kurt Weller (Sullivan Stapleton), the lead investigator following Jane Doe’s – rescue? capture? recovery? you’re really not sure – apparently has a tie to whoever tattooed Doe as one of the decorations on her back addresses her to him by tattooing his name on her directly. Weller discovers after questioning Doe that she doesn’t have any recollections of who she is, who was the artist behind her tattoos or why she was in the bag in Times Square. As Weller – and the audience – finds out deeper into the program, these aren’t the only mysteries that Jane Doe brings to the table.

In the premiere episode, one of Jane Doe’s tattoos – a few lines of a Chinese dialect hidden behind an ear – are translated by Doe (amazing the FBI agents around her, including Weller) as an address in New York City. Heading to the address with Doe in tow (who is understandably quite interested in figuring out what the hell is going on), the FBI finds that a Chinese national is plotting to blow up the Statue of Liberty. At the same time, we learn a bit more about Doe as, while she is attempting to stop a man from beating his wife in the apartment complex, she shows off hand-to-hand combat moves that would make Jason Bourne proud in taking down two attackers.

The investigation – into both the Chinese national’s plot and Doe herself – continues, where we learn that Doe COULD be a “black ops” agent trained by the Navy Seals. Meanwhile, the FBI team rushes to the Statue of Liberty, where Weller and Doe take the terrorist down as Doe unlocks a part of her memory – her undergoing weapons training with an unknown bearded gentleman – and prevent the attack from taking place.

While we won’t get into the gist of the second episode (a fascinating story about a former military pilot who hacks a drone to carry out attacks on U. S. soil against those who wronged him), you’ll get enough from the first two episodes to see that this is a show that will have some staying power. Overall it is a “grey” story in that the characters all have some faults that they have to work through, the heroes aren’t all wearing white hats and the bad guys aren’t all twirling their mustaches. For Weller, it is the disappearance of a childhood friend that drove him to join the FBI; for other agents on the team, it is in how much they can trust Doe; for Doe herself, it is who she actually is and if she’s actually a force for good or a tool put in place to cause eventual catastrophe.

The only thing that might derail Blindspot is if it becomes an episodic “Terrorist of the Week” show. Sure, we need to know what happened to Jane Doe, but the team doesn’t need to stop a terrorist from destroying the Five Boroughs every week or stop some sort of crime. Through the usage of the tattoos covering Doe (that seems to be the directional after they are translated by the supercomputer built by the scientist working with the team), we’d like to see them give us more information about the characters and have them grow along with our knowledge of Doe. As long as Blindspot can keep me guessing, I am going to be hooked on the show.

The same cannot be said for the new ABC show Quantico (Sundays at 10PM Eastern Time). The open of the program introduces us to first generation Indian-American newbie FBI agent Alex Parrish (superb Indian actress Priyanka Chopra), who is lying amidst the rubble of a massive terrorist attack in New York City (apparently it has become OK again to depict the Big Apple as the target of terrorists, but that’s an argument for another time). After being plucked from the wreckage by fellow agents and New York’s finest, they put her to the task of identifying from her FBI training class the person who is responsible for the attack.

Here is the first problem with Quantico. From the Incident Command Post in New York, we are whisked back to when Parrish heads off to training with the FBI at its namesake headquarters. Along the way, we are quickly introduced to other members of her class:  a gay man, a Muslim woman, a “legacy” whose parents were both FBI agents and, of course, a hunky guy that Parrish meets on the plane to Quantico and has sex with in his car upon hitting the ground in Virginia (Parrish doesn’t believe she’ll ever meet the guy again; she’s slightly surprised when he shows up in her training class).

The problem is the constant “time hopping” back and forth of the program. Just when you’re beginning to get a gist for what is going on in “real time” (the terrorist attack), you’re pulled out of the situation and plopped back to when the major players were at Quantico undergoing training. While there are moments that push along the plotline (SPOILER ALERT:  a suicide in the premiere episode, driven by an exercise in investigation, brings out plenty of information), the overall feeling of the “school days” of the FBI agent-wannabes is that’s where the writers and producers want to push the “sexy” side of the story, with more emphasis on individuals hooking up than their coursework. Instead of concentrating on one side or the other, you’re never really sure what is supposed to be the main story that is being told by the writers.

By the end of the first episode, it is pretty easy to deduce what is going to happen. Parrish, as she is shocked to learn, is believed to be responsible for the terrorist act and is taken away in cuffs and leg irons on the order of one of her FBI instructors Liam O’Connor (Josh Hopkins). While they are driving away from the scene of the crime, the driver whips out a stun gun and zaps the guard sitting beside the driver and busts Parrish out; the driver is Parrish’s Quantico class director Agent Miranda Shaw (Aunjanue Ellis), who informs Parrish she is being framed for the terrorist attack and has to find out who actually did it (it is still a member of her graduating class from Quantico) and who is setting her up to take the fall.

The major problem that I have with Quantico is that I normally don’t like when my television programming is 50/50. You’ve got to be able to pull me in with a solid story and a raison d’etre before you start pushing different storyline arcs at me. In the case of this program, the writers have admitted they wanted to do a soap opera-style Die Hard; for me, that’s a no-go. I’d rather have the action than the bed-hopping, backstabbing and other “intrigue” that shows up in the soap opera genre. Put this together with the “time hopping” and I have to admit that Quantico is either something I’ll watch in passing or won’t bother tuning into again.