2016 Fall Pilot Watch, part three: Time after time (travel)

I’m a sucker for goofy sci-fi TV, and two of last week’s three new network premieres fall smack in the middle of that genre. The other one stars Hayley Atwell, who I like, but it’s a legal drama that’s ripping off a podcast. Shall we begin?

Timeless

timeless

Drama, NBC, 10 p.m. Mondays

One-sentence summary: When a terrorist (Goran Višnjić) steals a time machine with intent to change America’s past, a historian (Abigail Spencer), a scientist (Malcolm Barrett) and a soldier (Matt Lanter) man another time machine to stop him.

The best thing about the pilot of “Timeless” is that it doesn’t let its pilot status weigh it down. It gets straight to the fireworks factory, for one thing – after the briefest of character introductions, we’re traveling through time at less than 15 minutes in – and then it ends with a one-two-three punch cliffhanger that had me laughing at its audacity while wanting to know more. It’s a much, much better hook than the twists at the end of “Pitch” and “This Is Us.”

As for the actual time travel elements, everything is appropriately corny in a charming way, in the tone of sassy characters from the 30s ending their sentences with “see?” and overacting just a bit, at the level of a community theatre production with a much bigger budget. Tonally, “Timeless” seems a kindred spirit to the dearly departed “Fringe,” which had humor, a touch of melodramatic pathos and a commitment to the bit that made it such a fun watch. “Timeless’s” main cast performances aren’t at that level yet (though Barrett’s nervous time traveler who is afraid of America’s history of racism has a good first showing), but in the early going, this is a consummate popcorn genre show.

Ryan’s rating: Watch it.

Conviction

conviction

Drama, ABC, 10 p.m. Mondays

One-sentence summary: What if the podcast “Serial” was a TV show, and also Hayley Atwell was there to play a sexy lawyer with personal problems?

Standard disclaimer: I don’t like legal drams. However, I did like the first season of “Serial,” and apparently the “Conviction” folks did, too, because there are more than a few similarities between their show (which focuses on an Innocence Project-esque team that looks at questionable convictions) and the podcast story of Adnan Syed (which involves an Innocence Project team that looks at his questionable murder conviction). There’s even a moment in the pilot, which focuses on a minority football star accused of killing his high school girlfriend – see any similarities? – where two of the characters go for a drive to the crime scene to time if the accused would have time to make it back to his alibi. I could almost hear Sarah Koenig soothingly intone, “My producer Dana and I went…”

Nevertheless, being a strange riff on a journalism podcast doesn’t necessarily make a bad show. What does make it bad is  obvious writing (I called the murderer literally the second someone said his name for the first time) and the superfluous addition of Atwell to the cast. I like Atwell, but before her arrival, the team already includes a lawyer, a detective, and two members whose roles are ill-defined but who appear to have expertise in eyewitness testimony and criminal behavior. Atwell ostensibly joins the team to add some personal drama – her character, a former first daughter, is being forced into the position to provide the team fame in exchange for her secret debauchery staying out of the the press – but her addition is more likely the result of the “Conviction” team wanting a sexy white lady to be the lead and ABC wanting to keep Atwell on staff following the cancellation of “Agent Carter.” This show made me miss that one.

Ryan’s rating: Skip it.

Frequency

frequency

Drama, CW, 9 p.m. Wednesdays

One-sentence summary: Based on the movie of the same name, “Frequency” follows a cop (Peyton List) who discovers she can talk to her now-dead father (Riley Smith) through a ham radio, which reaches 20 years into the past.

“Frequency” suffers from being the second time travel debut in a week, and in the initial going, “Timeless” just does it better. “Frequency” isn’t as much a fun show as it is one about the main character’s psychology and her evolving relationship with her father – subject matter that can be affecting in the right hands or maudlin in the wrong ones.

That’s not to say “Frequency” is bad. It’s quite competent, and there are a few particularly effective moments, most of them between Smith and his daughter from 20 years ago. However, it’s not very light on its feet: it’s pretty humorless most of the time, and its narrative “rules” are flimsy even for a time travel show. The show is also threatening to turn into a crime procedural, which I almost never enjoy.

That said, there’s definitely a few good butterfly effect moments, and the father-daughter relationship is solid. Full disclsoure: If I was watching this myself, I’d probably stop after episode one, but my wife quite enjoyed it, so I’ll be on this ride for another episode or two at least.

Ryan’s rec: Try it.

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