‘Timeless’ Takes Television Beyond The Idiot Box

It’s an interesting coincidence that this week’s suffragette episode of Timeless comes just days after the death of Schoolhouse Rock! songwriter Bob Dorough. One of his iconic songs was “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage,” with the memorable line, “Those pilgrim women who braved the boat/Could cook the turkey but they could not vote.”

Schoolhouse Rock! “America Rock: Suffering Till Suffrage.” Source: Youtube/Essra Mohawk

I’m part of the first generation of Schoolhouse Rock! kids. Wikipedia says those musical cartoons started as a commercial venture, but in the 45 years since they debuted, they’ve become a national institution. There are millions of Americans who can sing the Preamble to the Constitution (and if they’re like me, they have no prayer of speaking it rather than singing it), or who have a basic understanding of American lawmaking thanks to that Bill sitting there on Capitol Hill.

Schoolhouse Rock! allowed television to live up to the vision for its future that was promoted way back in the 1930s, when the first stations were on the air. The Smithsonian Magazine shares excerpts of those visions:

Tomorrow our whole radio broadcast background, so far as the listener is concerned, will be changed when television becomes a common everyday convenience. Not only will various subjects be taught or lectured upon and brought into our homes…”

Short Wave Craft Magazine, April 1935.

Television never quite lived up to that expectation, but there are a few shining examples of when our electronic campfire does teach us. Schoolhouse Rock! is one of them. So too are Roots and Holocaust, miniseries that both aired during my school years and that raised the national consciousness about slavery and the Nazi genocide.

Timeless is another one of those shining examples. The show’s writers have wrapped history lessons into a crackling adventure that also just happens to have a diverse cast of interesting characters. Even the bad guys are intriguing. It introduces us to historical characters like Hedy Lamarr, Katherine Johnson, and Marie Curie. It celebrates our cultural legacy with episodes like “The Lost Generation,” “Hollywoodland” and “King of the Delta Blues.”

Follow the #Timeless hashtag on Twitter and you can see examples of how this show has sparked interest in what could be a dry, dusty subject. You’ll find students sharing A+ reports and teachers creating lesson plans, just as my eighth grade history teachers incorporated Roots into their teaching and as Holocaust sparked serious discussions of hate and totalitarianism in my ninth grade classes.

And how many broadcast shows can say they are regularly reviewed for their historical accuracy by The Smithsonian Magazine, earning consistently excellent marks from the official keepers of our cultural heritage?

All of these things make Timeless Significant Television, and Significance means so much more than ratings points, especially in these days of delayed viewing (and it should be noted here that Timeless shows significant upticks from live viewing when L+3/L+7 numbers are calculated). Hopefully, when they decide whether to renew Timeless for Season 3, NBC executives will reflect on that Significance – and let it tip the scales in favor of renewal.

Timeless airs Sundays at 10/9c on NBC.

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