How the Writers of “Timeless” Mined History for its Riveting Second Season

In an exclusive interview, show co-creator Shawn Ryan chats about moving beyond the stories of ‘powerful white men’ to tell new stories about the past

What could possibly have drawn the attention of the "Time Team"? (Patrick Wymore/NBC)
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It’s not every TV season that a show comes along that fits so snugly into Smithsonian.com’s wheelhouse.

That’s why we were so excited when “Timeless” got picked up for a second season, giving us self-professed history nerds a chance to geek out on the show and learn a few things in the process. The show took us to pivotal moments in American history, showing the fight for women’s suffrage, the birth of Delta Blues, the romance of classic Hollywood. And while we were “edu-tained,” we were also entertained, falling for the budding romance between Lucy and Wyatt (alas), cheering for Connor Mason’s redemption, and watching Rufus and Jiya grow closer together. As viewers now know (spoilers ahead, naturally), though, not all is well with the Time Team: Rittenhouse is still a going concern, now run by even more ruthless villains, and worst of all, Rufus is dead in 1888. Luckily, the team has an even-more-upgraded time machine—and a buffer, Tomb-Raidery #lyatt—so not all hope is lost, but we’ll have to hang on for a possible Season Three (NBC has not yet announced whether the show will be renewed) to see how that turns out.

For now, though, this ends our foray into TV recapping. But as one last hurrah before we go, we convinced show co-creator Shawn Ryan (“The Shield,” “SWAT,” “Terriers”) to sit down with us and, for a short while, get just as nerdy about history as we are.

So...Rufus.


I don’t want to say NBC is holding Rufus hostage, but there you have it.

How do you come up with the scenarios for your episodes? Do you start with a time period, or a character, or a story?

Sometimes there’s a time period or a person that’s of such interest to us, we say, ‘We have to find a way to do an episode. [Co-creator] Eric [Kripke] has always wanted to do an episode about Robert Johnson. That was one that took a while for us to figure out, what’s the story around it? We centered it around Connor Mason and his first trip back into the past. Other times there’s a certain genre of show we want to do, so in Season One, we knew we wanted to do a spy story, behind enemy lines in Germany during World War II. We didn’t know if there was anyone historically significant, so we sent David [Hoffman, the show’s history consultant and one of the writers] off and asked, ‘Who plausibly would have been there?’ He came back with, ‘Did you know Ian Fleming was a spy?’

Other times we actually start with the emotional stories of the episode and use that as guidance for what historical period we might want to visit. So when Lucy and Wyatt are sort of falling for each other in episode three, before Jessica shows up, it’s terribly romantic and we wanted the height of romanticism. What’s more romantic than classic Hollywood? So sometimes the time period and the historical people come last. Sometimes they come first.

Talk about a time where you said, I know this is historically inaccurate, but we’re putting it in because it makes for better TV.

We try not to do that. One example that I can think of is in Season One. I think we were told that Katherine Johnson was not at NASA on the day of the moon landing. We certainly could not find definitive proof that she was there in the building on the day, and so we were faced with, ‘Well, do we abandon the story, or do we tell a sort of more general truth, the importance of who she was?’ But we usually try to avoid that, we try to be as true as we can.

Shawn Ryan
Shawn Ryan, Executive Producer (Mark Davis/NBC)

It seems like you’re putting a lot of effort into telling the stories of women and people of color this season. Was that intentional? Was it more difficult?

One of the things we became interested in for Season Two is the historical figures you should know more about, rather than Jesse James or other people you really did know about. We were more interested in the Alice Pauls of the world. Obviously, there’s always more source material on somebody like JFK than there’s going to be on Alice Paul. Abby Franklin, when you go back to the 1600s, it’s kind of tough. But in some ways it gives you a little more freedom as writers. We’re always looking for a historical fact that contradicts what we want to do, and if there’s not, it gives us a little more wiggle room.

So much of history as it’s taught revolves around powerful white men, and one of the things that was of great interest to us this year was to see if there was a way to explore history beyond that.

What are the biggest logistical challenges in putting together a show that spans so many time periods?

It’s brutal. I don’t know how else to put it. Eric and I look at ourselves and say what did we do here? It’s almost impossible to make a historical drama every week. It’s difficult to make a sci-fi show. And we’ve chosen to do both. I don’t know how Mari-An Ceo, our costume designer, I don’t know how she does it. A lot of times she has to make the costumes, because they’re not available to rent.

Locations are also a big thing. We had a couple episodes that got out of control in Season One—we built the Alamo. We were under tighter financial constraints in Season Two. We really did get good at having one or two big set pieces that show off the time period in ways that sell the world, and then finding ways in other parts of the story to be in rooms that were more easily cheatable.

What are your favorite time-travel movies or TV shows?

Back to the Future was always a big one for me. That came out when I was a teenager, and that had a lot of impact. A different kind of time-travel story, The Terminator, was another big one. I always liked “Quantum Leap” when it was on. Eric is the huge sci-fi fan in our partnership…he talks about “Time Tunnel” as a show that impacted him. It’s like..late ’60s, and there’s a time tunnel. It was a little ahead of its time.

Do you have a unified theory of time travel for the show?

We have our rules. What I’ve learned is that the fans care so much about them, and you’ve got to be super careful. Our rules are there’s this tree trunk of time, and then with the time machine, if someone goes back to an earlier moment the tree trunk can grow in a different direction. So it’s not really a multiverse so much as there’s one thread, and the thread can be changed. So those people who go back in the past and something changes, when they get back those people remember what it used to be. We do have different people on the show who have different memories of different histories.

Really, we’re a historical drama show. We’re not trying to dig deep into quantum physics.

What stories do you still want to tell that you haven't yet had a chance to?

There’s a bunch, but until we match them up with characters we don’t know if we can do them. One thing i learned about my own genealogy is I am a descendant of two different Orphan Train kids, so I’m really interested in doing a story about that. Teddy Roosevelt’s a really interesting figure… Not even necessarily during his presidential years. I’ve always been interested in doing something around the labor movement…I think there’s interesting labor history we haven’t touched yet.

If you had access to the Lifeboat, when and where would you take it?

I’ve been asked this question a few times, and I always give a different answer. Sometimes I just want to see fantastic sporting events. Sometimes I think I would actually go back and try to change things, but then I would worry about the unintended consequences. This time I’ll say: I would take it and go to the Globe Theater and watch some original Shakespeare.

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