Fall TV Shows: Why Time Travel Has Taken Off as the New Trend

Timeless - NBC
Timeless debuts this fall | Source: NBC

Every year, it’s not hard to pick out the predominant trend in fall pilots. Last year, we saw networks doubling down on superheroes, marked by the debut of Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow. The year before… well, it was also superheroes, brought on by Gotham, The Flash, and Agent Carter. 2016 though may end up as the combo-breaker to end all combo-breakers. As of now, we have four, count ’em four, separate shows debuting on different networks all centered around time travel as the main premise.

First question: Why time travel? It’s a sub-genre of a sub-genre, and on the whole has proven itself to be monumentally difficult to adjust for a television audience. Legends of Tomorrow managed to do a passable job in its debut season on The CW, but even that was weighed down by its ensemble cast and drawn-out story. And yet somehow, 2016 has become the year for time travel, whether it was agreed upon by all the major networks, or just a perfect storm of proposed pilots.

Second question: Are any of these shows going to be any good? It’s tough to suss out an answer without actually seeing a single episode, but at the very least, the base concepts are all intriguing. Let’s break it down by show to start.

Timeless, NBC: A government-sanctioned team must track down a criminal who’s stolen a time machine to meddle with the course of history, beginning with the Hindenburg explosion in 1937.

Time After Time, ABC: H.G. Wells travels to 2016 in pursuit of Jack the Ripper, who’s left Victorian London to start a new killing spree in modern America. Basically Timeless except in reverse.

Making History, FOX: The only comedy in the bunch, Making History follows two men who travel back to 1770s America to help kickstart the Revolutionary War.

Frequency, The CW: A police officer discovers she can talk with her deceased father over a ham radio. She soon discovers she’s talking to him on the day he died years earlier, spelling consequences for the future as she accidentally changes the past to save her father’s life.


It’s certainly a diverse bunch of shows given their shared premise. Time travel is something that’s never really been utilized to its full potential in television (Quantum Leap excepted of course). Still, the same could also be said about the comic book genre in the pre-Arrow era, so it certainly wouldn’t be an unprecedented level of success for an unproven concept. All this brings us to our third question: Is this a passing fad, or the start of the next big trend in television?

The “this is a passing fad” camp has a fair amount of evidence supporting it. Time After Time is essentially Sleepy Hollow with H.G. Wells instead of Ichabod Crane, Frequency has “promising CW concept canceled after one season” written all over it, Timeless’s showrunner is the person who couldn’t keep Revolution on its feet for more than two seasons, and Making History looks patently bonkers.

That all being so, there’s promise to be found in each individual project. Sleepy Hollow was amazing in its first season, Frequency has Supernatural alum Jeremy Carver attached as its showrunner, Timeless‘s showrunner was Carver’s partner on Supernatural, and Making History features an Arrested Development alum on its own creative team. The potential is all there, it’s really just a matter of each network leveraging this into something that can stand out from a crowded field this fall.

Perhaps we’re not identifying the right trend here though. This may very well not be about time travel as a sub-genre per se, and more about the growing demand for sci-fi in the mainstream. Look at NBC’s 2015 lineup and we see the proverbial canary in the coal mine: Of all its various new shows last year, the one that caught on as a hit was Blindspot, a pseudo-sci-fi crime drama. Meanwhile, FOX actually swung and missed on the genre in 2015 on Second Chance and Minority Report, sparking a need for a different tact.

Audiences are beginning to demand sci-fi and fantasy more and more with each passing season. While Star Wars dominates at the box office, Game of Thrones reigns supreme on television. Major networks are merely following the money, and that just so happened to lead them toward the most fickle and potential-filled realm of sci-fi in time travel. When done right, time travel can be a spectacular base concept. Unfortunately, it’s also incredibly easy to screw up. As Dean Pelton from Community tells us…

Dean Pelton - Community, NBC
Source: NBC

It may have been a throwaway joke on a since-canceled comedy, but Community pretty much nailed it: Time travel is really hard to write about. It requires a comprehensive rulebook for a writing team, important decisions regarding how timelines can and can’t be altered, and on top of all that, a cohesive story with appealing main characters. Probability tells us that four separates networks aren’t all likely to nail it in one year, but with that many different shows out in the world, chances are at least one catches on. The final question: Which one will it be? Only time will tell.

Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest

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