Time travel is one of the most popular tropes in science fiction and pop culture, and for good reason: it’s fun to imagine what you might do if you were transported back to the past. Would you save Lincoln from being assassinated? Kill Hitler before he rises to power? The possibilities are endless.
Well, no, that’s not true — the possibilities are only endless if you’re a white man with money at your disposal. And “Timeless,” the new NBC drama about time-traveling undercover agents, sure isn’t afraid to admit it.
Speaking to Revelist at a New York Comic Con press event this weekend, stars Abigail Spencer (Lucy), Malcolm Barret (Rufus), and Matt Lanter (Wyatt) admitted that they’re excited to be a part of a series that honestly represents the kind of prejudice marginalized people have faced throughout American history.
“It’s so much fun because that’s kind of the line where I live. If you look at my work, I try and do things that have some sort of social relevance, that have some sort of meat and potatoes behind it, even if it’s comedy,” Barrett said. “So it’s amazing to be in a controlled environment that deals with these sort of issues, and [showrunners Sean Ryan and Eric Kripke] are very smart about listening, and they let me have a lot of input.”
That input appears directly on screen, in fact; Barrett’s line from the pilot about how “the back of the bus was amazing!” was ad-libbed, as was the scene where Rufus distracts a racist jail guard by ranting about all the future success that Black men will achieve in America.
“Seeing her deal with that and always having to be the secretary or waitress — it’s going to come up over time, but I think we have to really earn it," Spencer added. "We can’t be too light about it, and it’s gotta be consistent. “
And just because Matt Lanter plays the obligatory white guy doesn’t mean that he doesn’t face his own challenges, too. “We shot a World War II episode where we’re in a massive theater with 40-foot Nazi Germany swastika banners hanging,” he noted. “And it’s so surreal, walking into a room full of Nazi soldiers ... it’s scary. It really is scary. You kind of can’t help but to be affected just as a person, walking on a set like that.”
This isn’t to say that the show will be singularly focused on all the ways people have been horrible to each other throughout time, because at the end of the day that wouldn’t be very fun. But Kripke and Ryan were very interested in investigating history beyond we all learned in high school social studies (because, as Kripke put it, “so much of history is the history of rich white dudes”). That’s why they made sure that their cast a female character and an African American character in the first place — to explore how those types of people lived.
“I’m not trying to make a message or be overly earnest. I just want to entertain people,” Kripke said. “But we wanted to present an honest version of history. We want to say, if you’re a black man walking around in 1937 New Jersey, there’s going to be an honest reality to what that is, and we don’t want to sugar coat it.”
"Timeless" airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on NBC.