How Timeless Creators Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke Ditched High-Concept for Heart

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How <i>Timeless</i> Creators Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke Ditched High-Concept for Heart

Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke might be quarterbacking a high-concept drama in NBC’s Timeless, but the duo try their hardest not to get too hung up on the “high-concept” part of the equation.

The time-traveling sci-fi series, whose first season comes to a close Monday night, is essentially a swashbuckling chase through time, with heroes Lucy (Abigail Spencer), Wyatt (Matt Lanter) and Rufus (Malcolm Barrett) turning up at everything from Lincoln’s assassination to the moon landing in any given week. But Ryan (The Shield) and Kripke (Supernatural) have worked hard to make the real thrust of Timeless the characters caught up in that adventure.

“We wanted to only use the time travel as a way to explore deeper and deeper facets of them, because I think we knew from the start we had exceptional actors and wanted to flesh out the people they’re playing,” Kripke says. “It’s harder to do that up front, because the audience doesn’t know much about these people yet. We had to do some laying pipe for the world, the rules and stakes and all of those things that genre world-building require[s]. But once we established that, we were able to focus on the heart and emotion of the people involved.”

The make-up of the team provides some unique storytelling opportunities in itself, with Lucy and Wyatt, who are white, joined by their pilot, Rufus—a black man who doesn’t fit in quite as well when the characters start jumping a few decades into America’s racially charged past. Barrett, who plays Rufus, says he’s proud of how the series uses that element to look at history from a different perspective when compared to what you might normally get on a primetime sci-fi drama.

“A lot of times, sci-fi can be too lazy to deal with the challenges of race,” Barrett says. “Because if you’re doing fantasy, or sci-fi, you don’t want to dredge [up] those larger ramifications. What was great here was these guys went full on into it… To be a part of that conversation was tremendous.”

Where some sci-fi TV series might spend hours delving into the minutia of time travel, Ryan says that, with Timeless, he and Kripke wanted to get the “rules” out of the way as quickly as possible. He points to the second half of the season, in which it’s revealed that Lucy is actually the daughter of a leader in the nefarious Rittenhouse group, which has been pulling the strings throughout history. It’s the sort of big mystery element that one would typically find in a high-concept drama, but in Timeless it’s filtered through Lucy’s personal story.

“What I like is, we really take out time to go on the emotional journey with Lucy as she’s made these personal discoveries along the way, but we try to keep it simple in regards to all the mythology,” Ryan says, referring to Lucy’s meeting with Charles Lindbergh, another member of the Rittenhouse lineage. “[W]ith Lucy struggling to realize what that means for her, she can look into a mirror of sorts with Charles Lindbergh, and we can explore whether or not it’s fate, or if you can choose your own course in life. Those are things you don’t need mythology to set up.”

That focus on character is arguably best reflected in Rufus’ story. The team’s pilot has all the makings of comic relief early on, but Barrett says he was surprised to learn just how large a part Rufus plays in the narrative. He even gets the season’s big love story.

“The arc I’ve had on this show in the course of one episode is more than I’d expect in a season,” Barrett says. “I went from being the homebody, to being the hero who fought against Nazis and the British, to killing a man and falling in love.”

As part of the series’ character-centric mandate, Ryan says he and Kripke made a point not to have major world-historical changes happen every time the team travels through time—“We didn’t want them to come back to a world where, like, there’s no Kentucky Fried Chicken,” he jokes—instead showing those ripples in more personal ways. That manifests most strikingly in Lucy’s sister being erased from existence after the team’s very first mission.

“Like Lucy and her sister, or Wyatt trying to get his wife back, those are the ones that matter to an audience,” Ryan says. “I always liked the idea that history is a river. You can change it, but sometimes even when you think you’ve changed it, it goes back. It goes back to fate versus free will.”

Looking to the larger mysteries of Timeless, such as Lucy’s journal and the machinations of the Rittenhouse group, Ryan says balancing those elements is one of the toughest tightropes to walk when making a TV series. He considers himself a TV fan first, and as such he approaches the challenge as most fans might: “What would get me excited to watch?”

“In the writers room, early on in the season, we had a storyline that involved Rufus secretly recording the other two people,” Ryan says. “We felt that’d be hard to keep going over the entire season. Looking back, we felt like how we handled it was just the right time. We had three to four good episodes of Rufus feeling that torture, followed by the team actually finding out, and [the fallout from that. Then, how does this team rebuild trust? It’s about taking those stories and trying to calibrate them.”

That character-driven focus extends even to the series’ main villain, Garcia Flynn (Goran Visnjic), who by season’s end seems more like an uneasy ally than an enemy. In Flynn, Kripke says the creative team tried to make sure they had an antagonist with clear and sympathetic motivations.

“I don’t tend to write villains as much as I write extreme heroes of their own story, so we knew early on when creating him he had a cause that was sympathetic, even if the means with which he executed it were horrific,“ Kripke says. “It’s just good for a story to have a complicated antagonist. You get more material out of it, and it makes for harder moral questions you really have to wrestle with when your villain has a point.”

In its first season, Timeless has touched on everything from the Hindenburg to the Alamo, but there is one slice of history that proved too ambitious to tackle. Ryan and Kripke had planned to do an episode set in old Hollywood, featuring stars such as young Ronald Reagan and young John Wayne—they even had the story broken and an outline written.

“We found this nugget of history, that the guy who was the music supervisor on Stagecoach was really a long-embedded Russian spy,” Kripke says. “That’s true! We were blown away by that, so we were going to tell a Russian spy-hunter story in the backdrop of old Hollywood.” The problem? It’s not easy or cheap recreating old Hollywood, especially when you have to cast convincing versions of icons like Wayne and Reagan. So the story was shelved, at least for now. (Ryan and Kripke hope to revisit the idea if the show is renewed.)

The two men hope they’ve created something that’s not just a rollicking adventure, but also brings history to life by spotlighting lesser-known stories and details that might not make the textbook. Ryan says that the anecdotes have been endless since the series debuted; his daughter’s teacher even referred to an episode, not realizing that her father made the show.

“I had a friend who went to Washington, staying at the Watergate, and her kid knew what it was because of an episode we’d done of Timeless,” Ryan says. “I found that really interesting. We want to entertain, but if it can spark an interest in history and create curiosity to learn more, that’s amazing. And I think that’s something it has done and continues to do.”

As those involved with the series settle in for the finale, and await word on a potential second season, Barrett jokes that this is the moment a time machine would come in handy.

“That’s what I’d be using it for right now, that’s for sure.”

The season finale of Timeless airs tonight at 10 p.m. on NBC.

Trent Moore is an award-winning journalist and professional geek. You can read more of his stuff at Syfy Wire, and keep up with all his shenanigans @trentlmoore.