Interview: Shawn Ryan talks Timeless, being uncancelled and how TV has changed since The Shield
Matthew Turner | On 07, Apr 2018
Timeless is back on UK TV screens for Season 2, as the show returns to E4 for another run of history-bending adventures. The fact that it has even returned at all, though, is something of a miracle: after its first outing aired in both the US and UK, NBC cancelled the programme, deeming it too expensive for the response it received. A swift fan outcry later, though, and NBC announced that it had un-cancelled the show, instead ordering a 10-episode second season,
With the show now airing on Wednesdays on E4, and with Season 1 available to catch up with on Netflix UK – read our 9 reasons why you should be watching – we sit down with co-creator Shawn Ryan to talk writing sci-fi, the surprise of being uncancelled, and how TV has changed since The Shield.
As fans of the show, we were beyond delighted to hear of its renewal, so we can only imagine how you felt. Can you talk us through the whole cancellation and renewal process?
Well, it’s a very complicated thing here. 10, 15 years in the past, it would have been very easy to look at overnight ratings and have a sense of how a show is doing, compared to other shows on the network, but the reality is far more complicated today – you have time-shifted viewing, you have people watching on PVRs, you have people watching online. And then also, with cross-ownership of shows, you have some shows that are completely owned by a network that might get a little bit more of a break, you’ll have other shows that aren’t owned by a network, or in our case we were half-owned by NBC, the network that broadcasts our show. And how a show is doing [in foreign territories] is important as well.
So we felt like there was a good case for us to be renewed. Our overnight ratings weren’t the greatest, but we found that the numbers of people watching within three and seven days later were extraordinarily high. And people, ultimately were watching the show, they just weren’t watching in a traditional way, so we went into what we call the May upfronts here in the U.S., we went in with some optimism that we would get picked up. And ultimately NBC had a couple of shows that they owned completely that had done worse than us in the ratings that they decided to renew for financial reasons and I think initially that left us without a slot, and we got the bad news that we were cancelled. I think that was on a Wednesday. And, you know, I felt kind of depressed, like it was a little bit unfair, but it’s a big boy business and you just have to tell what you can control. And what I came to find out afterwards is that, the very next day, the people at NBC arrived at work and they had heard the day before, online, from so many people about ‘why are you cancelling the show? It’s so great’, and they really questioned the decision, like, ‘why are we in this business if we’re going to cancel a show that we truly love creatively, that is watched maybe untraditionally, but watched by so many people and they decided to try to figure out a way to bring it back.
They got into contact with Sony, which is the studio I work for, who are the co-producers of the show and they figured out a business deal that worked for both sides and the next thing I knew we were getting a call that, ‘hey, you know, forget about that cancellation call a few days ago, we’re actually going to pick it up’, which was a huge shock and a tremendous relief, because we felt the show deserved to be back, and we just immediately launched into, ‘we have this reprieve, what do we do with it, how do we make it worthwhile?’ As I’ve been saying, it’s only a great story if we make great episodes. If we come back and we make a mediocre show, then suddenly it’s not such a great story. So we’ve just been focusing since then on trying to be worthy of the miracle pick-up.
Is it fair to say that Timeless being available on Netflix helped the show find an audience?
Well, that’s really interesting, because I know that it’s available on Netflix in the UK – it’s not available on Netflix in the U.S. and we’ve seen the effect, because I’ve heard about so much interest in the UK for the show, which I think can be chalked up a lot to it being available on Netflix. Only recently has the show become available on Hulu here in the United States and we’ve started to hear about people who had heard about the show but hadn’t caught it on its first run. So there is something that’s really beneficial, whether it’s Hulu or Netflix or Amazon, any of these sites, that affords people the opportunity to catch up with shows that they may have missed, and affords them the opportunity to binge the show and to catch up. I think that’s fantastic and it’s something that 10, 15 years ago wasn’t possible.
You know, I did a show called The Shield that was a very serialised show, and it was always hard initially to pick up new viewers when we were seasons into the show, because people didn’t know who the characters were and what was going on, but now you have an opportunity for people to start at the very beginning and hopefully catch up to your air schedule and add to that. We’ve seen that in the US over recent years, whether it’s Breaking Bad where people started discovering that show on Netflix and then caught up to the original screenings, or a show like Riverdale, which I’m told had a very big bump this last summer by people who caught up with it over the summer on Netflix. Yeah, I hear that Timeless is available on Netflix – on my Twitter account, I see all the time, ‘oh, I caught up with the show on Netflix’ and I’m like, oh, well that person must be in the UK And I see enough of them to know that it’s had an impact.
“When we made The Shield we were trying to do something very similar to what a lot of streaming shows are doing now.'”
It’s funny you mention The Shield, because back then, you used to have to do the same thing on DVD. I didn’t start watching The Shield until about Season 5 or so, and I remember watching the first four on DVD.
It was possible to catch up, but it did require people to buy the DVD, which some people certainly would – there was good word of mouth and people heard about it and they would buy it, but when you have Netflix, you’re already paying your nine or 10 dollars a month or whatever it is, or however many pounds or euros a month it is over there, and so in a way, it feels like something free, whereas when we were trying to convince people to buy The Shield DVDs, it was like, ‘hey you’re going to fork over 50 dollars for a TV show that you may or may not like’, and it was a bit of a tougher sell.
You touched on this already, but obviously, you produced The Shield in 2002 – how does TV compare now, to TV in 2002?
I would say that the bar is higher now than when we first started. When we made The Shield we were trying to do something that is very similar to what a lot of streaming shows are doing now, a lot of cable shows are doing now but back then, at least in the US it was really only broadcast television and a couple of different HBO shows. There’s a lot more competition for talent now. People, I think, when they watch a TV show, they expect high production values, in ways that 15+ years ago, they didn’t. There’s certainly less of a stigma – when I first came to Los Angeles and started to try and be a TV writer, there was a stigma that TV wasn’t as good as film, that the minute you could escape TV to do film, you would, and I would say now we see so many people in film escaping to TV, for the relative creative freedom that comes along with it or the storytelling advantages that come with it – you don’t have to shove your entire story into a two hour block, you’re allowed to advance characters at a more appropriate pace. So TV in the last 15 to 20 years has really gotten a lot better. It’s gotten more interesting and, as a whole, I personally think it’s surpassed film as a medium.
Why do you think that time travel shows are so popular right now? Apart from Timeless, I can think of Outlander, Legends of Tomorrow, Travelers, Time After Time…
Well, some of that is just that there are more TV shows, period. 10, 15 years ago when, at least in the US, there were only a hundred or so shows, you’d have fewer sci-fi shows, but now that you have five hundred shows, naturally, you have more. I think the thing that intrigues people so much about time travel is that it allows you to ask the intoxicating question, ‘what if?’ You know, what if this happened instead of the thing that we know happened? What if we took these characters and put them here and did this? You know, so much of television is telling the story of what if, and having a time travel show allows you to do it in really incredibly interesting and satisfying ways. There’s something about the genre. It’s a genre I’ve never worked in before and I really haven’t done much sci-fi at all – my partner on the show, Eric Kripke, was the genre / sci-fi guy, and I’ve learned so many lessons about the genre from him and here I would say finally, the thing it allows you to do, it allows you to tell stories in metaphor. So many of the shows I’ve done prior to this have been kind of realistic, quote unquote gritty shows that sort of hew to very modern sensibilities and stay very grounded, and in this show, you get to tell kind of epic stories. You get to put your characters in the middle of some of the most memorable historical events of all time, and you get to tell emotional stories that resonate metaphorically with them.
So, for instance, we have an episode in this upcoming season, the third episode that really deals with the Wyatt / Lucy relationship and the will-they-or-won’t-they of it all, and doing that, we were able to place them into 1940s Hollywood, probably one of the most glamorous, romantic times in history, and so with time travel, you get to pick the atmosphere that you want to put your characters in, the historical figures that you want them to interact with, all so that you can tell a very specific emotional story, so there’s something about time travel that allows you to tell these kinds of stories in beautiful ways, that you can’t always when you’re telling a straight drama.
I have a pet theory that history is so terrible right now that the appeal of rewriting is quite strong.
I will say that Eric and I wrote the pilot for this in the fall of 2015, so the world was not quite as chaotic when we started this as it is now, so we may have stumbled into some wish fulfilment for some people. But yeah, there is an escapist nature to time travel shows that allows you to picture an alternate timeline and an alternate view of the past and the present that may be more soothing to certain viewers. Without a doubt, that may be part of the appeal.
“We’re far more interested in how history changes in ways that are personal…”
The show is fascinating because it breaks the golden rule of time travel shows, which is your characters do change history and sometimes quite significantly. Do you have specific rules you won’t break?
Well, there’s some that we’ve agreed for the moment not to break, the biggest one being that you can’t travel into a time period where you already exist and have two versions of yourself. So that’s a rule that so far we’ve stuck to – it may change if our characters learn to change the science behind it. And then just on a sort of writers’ room level, we try to change history in ways that are personal, rather than changing things like, oh, suddenly Kentucky Fried Chicken never got established, things that change the landscape in ways like that. We’re far more interested in how history changes in ways that are personal for us.
I love how much actual history there is in each episode. How important a factor is that to the show?
Yeah, it’s a crucial part of the show. One of the things we say is that we want to focus on stories about either extraordinary famous people but giving the details of things you didn’t know about them, or we want to focus on characters who are important to history, but for whatever reason may not have been talked about and that you don’t know anything about. So those are the two criteria for us – we don’t want to meet a famous person just to meet a famous person and learn nothing new about them. But yeah, I would say some of our best episodes are those where we’re introducing the world to somebody that we feel like, hey, you should know about this person, even though maybe you don’t.
In Season 1, it was an episode about Bass Reeves, the US Marshal who inspired The Lone Ranger but was African-American and had this amazing career, and that was an incredible story to tell, and we worked really hard to get all the details right. We have a full-time historian who works in the room with us, so that when we have questions, he goes off and researches and comes back with the answers for us. You know, Hedy Lamarr, the famous film actress, she’s in Episode 3 of this new season, we focus less on her celluloid accomplishments and more on her work as a scientist and someone who invented the frequency-hopping technology that essentially led to Wi-Fi.
Were you aware, when you were writing that episode, there was a documentary about her coming out called Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story?
We heard about it while we writing it, but I haven’t seen it yet.
It’s quite serendipitous that they’ve both come out around the same time
Last year, we did a whole thing about Katherine Johnson, the African-American mathematician who worked at NASA and a few months after we wrote that episode, the movie Hidden Figures came out. So certainly there are times when there’s something in the water with certain historical figures.
Hedy Lamarr is obviously in the water right now because Legends of Tomorrow also had an episode with her in as well.
Yes. Now, that scared me, because we had already written our episode with Hedy Lamarr, and I heard, oh, Legends of Tomorrow are doing something with her, and I was like, oh, and I did watch that episode, because we hadn’t filmed our episode yet, but it had been written, and I watched it to be like, okay, is there going to be anything here that steps on what we’re doing, because we don’t want to be second to the party or something like that. Yeah, she was sort of a more minor figure in that episode’ they didn’t really do anything that conflicted with what we were doing.
Episode 6 actually deals very heavily with a British figure, Don Law, if you know who he is.
You’ve cast quite a lot of Brits in guest roles, haven’t you?
We had Sean Maguire, who played Ian Fleming back in Season 1…
And Sam Strike, who I think American viewers probably wouldn’t know was British…
Yeah, Sam did a really good job for us as Clyde Barrow in that Bonnie and Clyde episode and I got to know him a little bit. A really, really talented actor – he was in the Netflix series Mindhunter too, he was very good in that. Yeah, I think he’s a real talent. Yeah, we get invaded over here by Brits and Aussies all the time – you guys produce some good actors.
And obviously you’ve got Paterson Joseph
Yes, we do. He has more to do in Season 2 than Season 1 and he’s just fantastic.
Have you watched Peep Show?
No, I haven’t.
You have to watch him in Peep Show! Did you know that Sam Strike and Sean Maguire were both on a British TV soap called EastEnders?
I knew that Sam was, but I didn’t know that Sean was as well. I’ve been hearing about EastEnders forever, but I’ve never seen it.
“I think five would be the minimum number of seasons we’d want.”
Do you already know what your final episode will be? I’m interested in how you balance the series finale episode of the show with the need to keep the show going. Do you have a five-season plan, or do you have a plan that can go beyond five seasons and you just keep your fingers crossed?
Television has a very interesting and unique aspect to it that doesn’t apply to novels or to music albums or to movies – all those things you’re able to start and complete. Television is always an ongoing organism, it’s something that’s growing, it’s something that’s changing and what you thought the show was when you made the first season becomes something different in subsequent seasons and you always have to allow for those changes. So Eric and I certainly have some ideas of how we think the show should end and will end. But we’re also flexible enough to know that if a better idea comes along that we’ll be open to it. As for this season, it was never our intention this season to write something to be a series finale or something that would be construed as a series finale. Our attitude has been to plan for success, that’s all we can do, if we’re trying to make the best show we can make. And our approach was, well, let’s make the best Season 2 that we can and end in a place that would allow us to launch into the best Season 3 we could make. So, for the moment, we’re not focused on what the series finale is.
I mean, even a show like The Shield, and if I can toot my own horn, it gets a lot of praise and kudos for how the series ended and everything, but even on that show we didn’t really know how it would end until we were writing Episode 4 or 5 of the final season and we came upon what we thought the ending should be. And so, having had some success on that show coming up with an ending that worked, but coming up with it late, you just try to be true to your characters, you try to be true to your story and you trust that when the time comes, if you know that, okay, we’re heading towards a definitive ending, you trust in your ability to write towards that ending. I think that’s the only way – I think if you focus too much on Season 7 while you’re making Season 2, you won’t make a good Season 2, and right now we’re just focused on making the best Season 2 we can.
So do you have a set minimum for the number of seasons?
I think five would be the minimum we’d want, but it’s a competitive TV environment, so you never know whether you’re going to get that or not. So, in our minds, I think five to seven would be the perfect range. And like any show, it would be good to know beforehand if you were going to end. But the reality is that most TV shows don’t get that luxury to pick their finish. The Shield did.
That’s sort of what I was getting at, like you basically want to be able to end on your own terms.
Yeah, but it’s very rare – very few shows get to do that. The vast minority of shows get to do that. I was fortunate with The Shield that I was able to do that – I knew at the end of Season 5 that we were going to make seven seasons, so I was able to plan until the end two seasons out. But those things are usually reserved for unqualified monster hits, although some unqualified monster hits nobody wants to end, so even in that case – I don’t know, do The Walking Dead people know when that show’s going to end? I would argue that right now, they don’t.
The comics are still going too, aren’t they?
Yeah, it’s a cash cow and too many people are too invested in the show continuing, so it’s rare that you get the opportunity to do that. So I think that’s why I tend to focus on the season that we’re on. If you make it the best season it is, you give your show the best chance for success, which gives you the best chance to eventually go on and make Seasons 5, 6 and 7. It can be frustrating – nothing would make me happier than to be able to know that hey, we’re going to be able to tell a complete story along the way but our intention is to make a Season 2 that has a beginning, a middle and an end, and that works in and of itself and will launch some ideas that would be the basis of a Season 3. And then we’ll see what the marketplace has to say and we’ll see what the viewers have to say. And that’s just the nature of television.
Timeless Season 1 and 2 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.