Fall TV: It’s Back to the Past

Maybe it’s because the broadcast networks crave turning the clock back to when they were dominant that the new season is dominated by series about time travel.

NBC has Timeless, a time-traveling drama about villains conspiring to alter American history. Fox offers Making History, a time-traveling sitcom about heroes fumbling their way around American history. ABC tenders Time After Time, in which H.G. Wells travels in time to stop Jack the Ripper. Then there’s CW’s reimagining of the 2000 movie Frequency, in which a police detective in 2016 played by Peyton List discovers that she can speak via ham radio to her detective father who died in 1996. To be blunt, I’m not sure her character would know a ham radio from a ham sandwich, but who am I to invoke reality when the only requirement for viewing this season is suspension of disbelief?

It’s as if Dr. Who, Time Lord, was programming the TV schedule himself. As a fan of the genre, I haven’t been this excited since ABC announced the premiere of Time Tunnel back in the ’60s. Would our heroes steer the Titanic away from disaster?

The historical disaster co-opted by Timeless is the Hindenburg, the passenger airship that caught fire and crashed in 1937. If the trailers are any indication, Timeless is the standout series for both special effects, especially as the dirigible arrives in New Jersey, and such dialogue zingers as “I think someone who loves history would want to save it” and “I am black. There literally is no place in American history that would be awesome for me.”

You’d think that with history-twisting plots blossoming on the TV screen, apps meant to fill in viewers with background would be mushrooming on the mobile screen. Who can forget the Mad Men Cocktail Culture guide that let you fact-check Don’s drinks?

But there’s no equivalent this season. Indeed, there are jaw-dropping virtual reality apps like Hindenburg VR that command your vision—peripheral included—that exist without TV tie-ins.

The second-screen phenomenon, suggesting that viewers would keep one eye on the TV and the other on a handheld device, seems to have been overhyped. Maybe it’s because more viewers are now making their mobile screen their primary screen. The networks are chasing younger viewers by streaming programs to little screens. Every network has an app. As new shows roll out, you don’t necessarily need a TV to see them.

Even as the networks seek to transport the millennials it prizes to the past with enticing new series, they’re resurrecting old shows and replacing actors like Richard Dean Anderson with younger versions like Lucas Till. In the CBS reboot of MacGyver, a 20-something MacGyver uses the tools around him to make his escapes and avert disasters. MacGyver is a natural for an app. Who wouldn’t want to be able to retrieve a recipe for explosives based on household products under the sink? As it happens, there already is one: MacGyver Emergency Tricks Database—All the Recipes from Every Episode of the Series (99 cents).

Unfortunately, it’s based on the old series, and it’s all text. This snooze of an app chronicles each trick enabling MacGyver to save the day in every episode (1985–1992). The one from Season 1, Episode 17, for instance, explains that MacGyver slides a map partly under the door to catch and retrieve a key as it falls out of the lock.

Since Millennial MacGyver is unlikely to find a paper map lying around, I’m betting that in forthcoming episodes his adversaries will overlook personal possessions. After all, how can anyone—even MacGyver—be expected to get anything done these days without a smartphone?