Short review: A historian, a soldier, and an engineer fighting a worldwide conspiracy to change history by traveling through time? Yes, please! Bonus: Goran Višnjić!
This was one of those shows that had to fight to stay on the air, but we got two good seasons. Thankfully, they had a Christmas special to tie up the loose ends and keep the door open a crack for a new series in the future.
As a historian, I found myself curious about the time periods and characters that they met. I spent time afterward looking up names and dates and thought about moments in history that might have ripple effects in the future – personal moments or historic moments. Just for sparking curiosity, I think this series is worth watching and I can’t wait to see more from Eric Kripke and Shaun Ryan.
Long review: More detailed descriptions of elements I liked. Not exactly spoilers, but if you don’t want to know, you’ve been warned.
I’ve written before about narratives in history and versions of truths and ultimate truths. And this series takes those ideas and turns them into an interesting story that opens the door to hidden histories. Each episode goes to a different time period and while we might think that the Time Team, as they are called online, is there to stop or save a big event, sometimes it’s a small event that has repercussions generations later.
This can be personal or simply an unknown story. For instance, I had no idea that a little recording session in 1936 by a guy named Robert Johnson would spark blues music, which would lead to rock and roll, the 1960s movements, and eventually to questioning authority (what the bad guys don’t want).
When you deal with merging multiple voices and multiple narratives the right way, you learn about characters you didn’t know before, like Grace Humiston, the first female Special Assistant US Attorney. She was known as Mrs. Sherlock Holmes for helping to solve cold cases involving missing women.
One fun episode was running into Ian Fleming in Nazi Germany. Fleming is the author of all the James Bond novels and he was a real-life spy during World War II. Another is stopping by the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Having read Devil in the White City, I already knew that this was about one of the US’s most famous serial killers. Bonus for that episode: Harry Houdini. And what do you know about Hedy Lamarr? She wasn’t just a pretty face on the silver screen in the 1940s; if you use Bluetooth technology, then you are using something based on the principles she developed. If you haven’t seen the movie Hidden Figures, would you know anything about Katherine Johnson, a black woman working at NASA in the 1960s who made the lunar landing possible with her calculations?
A seemingly benign episode might have bigger repercussions if you think about it. The trio go back and meet the first black NASCAR driver, Wendell Scott. A number of auto executives were going to attend the race. So what happens if the execs get killed by the bad guys? Who would control the whole auto industry?
My favorite thing about the show is that it sparked my curiosity. We all know the basics of history, but to get the full truth, you have to hear all the voices. This was a great way to introduce untold stories to US audiences who suffered through white man’s history. (Or, in the vernacular of my liberal arts university: his-story.)
The great thing about this show is that we see people outside stereotypes. The historian is a young-ish woman. The engineer is a black Star Wars geek who graduated MIT. Another engineer is a Lebanese woman who likes Star Trek. The special agent in charge is Indian (from India) and is married to a black woman. The one character that is stereotypical is the Delta Force soldier; he’s a tasty morsel of all-American origin.
The show takes on the challenge of what a woman or a black man can do in history when neither one of those was respected in society. History is not seen through rose-colored glasses, but it’s not seen as the Dark Ages either. People survived and even thrived. The trio also has to make some tough choices. Would you try to stop the assassination of Abraham Lincoln?
If you watch a lot of TV and movies (who me?), then you’ll also get the inside jokes. Some of the most fun moments are when they make up names to hide their identities. Cagney and Lacey are investigators. Lando Calrissian is a record producer. John Maclane and Hans Gruber team up. Denzel Washington is a Civil War soldier. Every episode has fun Easter eggs if you’re quick enough to catch them.
Bottom line: If you like history, if you like turning what you know on its head, if you like to be challenged, and if you like laughing, then this show is for you.