Rewriting History, Hollywood Style: A “Timeless” Inspiration During Jan Term
February 11, 2019
By Ella B. Webster ’20
“To me, history is an amazing major to have,” says Shawn Ryan, executive TV producer, to a room full of Converse students over a Skype call.
This moment is not one that history professor Dr. Angela Elder had expected when she created her Jan term class, which is centered around the TV show Timeless. But now, after an exciting coincidence – a Converse freshman is related to Ryan, a creator of Timeless, and Ryan was thrilled to hear about the class – Ryan himself is Skyping in. It’s an exciting moment for Elder and her students, and the Jan term class leading to it has been a month they will all remember.
A class based on a TV show is certainly not the most conventional of Jan term classes, but Elder was determined to make it work. She first watched Timeless about a year ago. “I was just struck by how well-done it is,” she says of the NBC show. The basic premise of the show, she explains, is that the “good guys” have a time machine and venture back in time to keep the “bad guys” from changing significant historical events. It may sound simple, but it delves into deeply important issues, shining a spotlight on Hollywood’s portrayal of marginalized groups throughout history.
Righting the wrongs in Hollywood portrayals has become increasingly common in the past few years; Elder notes movies like Hidden Figures, a film about Black women who were key contributors to NASA, as just one example of how Hollywood is improving in its representation of all people.
Not only do the protagonists visit times we all know, like the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, but they often travel back to “moments that the typical American audience is not as familiar with,” Elder says. These moments feature women, people of color, members of the LGBT+ community, and others who are far too often omitted from our history books – and our TV shows. This key feature, Elder realized, makes the show a strong foundation for a class about Hollywood’s representation of history. And so her Jan Term class was born: “Timeless: Hollywood, Time Travel, and American History.”
In a typical day in this class, students come in prepared after reading a primary or secondary source relevant to the episode they will be watching that day. They spend the first third of the class discussing their source and its context, then watch a 45-minute episode of Timeless. In the final portion of the class, students discuss how the show approached the topic. How, for example, does it represent people of color involved in the event? Or, as Dr. Elder may ask, “How does the episode try to appeal to the audience’s senses?” or “How does music play a role?” In doing so, the class not only processes the episode and how it represents historical figures, but also considers the Hollywood side and the role of production value in telling stories. Additionally, this class format guides students as they prepare for their ultimate goal: by the end of the Jan Term semester, each student will create their own proposal for an episode of Timeless.
“What do you think Hollywood has gotten wrong that you want to fix? Research that moment, find out that history, tell that story, and then write a scene…”
“What do you think Hollywood has gotten wrong that you want to fix?” Dr. Elder cites as one of the questions students might bear in mind when creating their proposals. “Research that moment, find out that history, tell that story, and then write a scene — how would this play out on Timeless?” Righting the wrongs in Hollywood portrayals has become increasingly common in the past few years; Elder notes movies like Hidden Figures, a film about Black women who were key contributors to NASA, as just one example of how Hollywood is improving in its representation of all people. However, it still has a long way to go. “[Misrepresentation] is not something that’s gone,” says Elder. “This is why we need really good people who have thought about these issues going into screenwriting and trying to write down some of these moments that have been overlooked.”
That’s why what Elder’s students are doing is not only a valuable experience for them, but an asset to our society inside and outside of Converse. In their episode proposals, students share brilliant ideas celebrating and honoring historical figures of various race, genders, and sexualities. One student, Lily West, proposes an episode about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which “caused the deaths of 146 people, mostly young immigrant women, due to a lack of industrial safety.” After the fire, Lily says, female activists “like Frances Perkins and Rose Schneiderman” were essential in fighting for legal change to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again. Though we may have learned about this fire in our history classes, our textbooks likely didn’t focus on the tragedy that befell the immigrant women working in the factory, or the importance of Perkins’ and Schneiderman’s activism. It’s this essential difference that highlights why the mindset of Timeless and the efforts of students like Elder’s represent a vital and much-needed shift in our approach to historical representation.
Elder’s students have worked tirelessly, essentially writing a research paper and creating an episode pitch in the brief span of a month. And after all of it, they sit in a classroom in Kuhn, looking up at the Skype image of Shawn Ryan. For almost an hour, they ask him questions about the show, about Hollywood, and about history. He listens intently and provides genuine answers, making the class laugh and setting them at ease. And then he does something the students have been anticipating for days and perhaps weeks by now; he listens to each of their episode proposals. Each student reads a short description of their episode pitch, with Ryan paying rapt attention.
“That’s really impressive,” he says when each of the students have pitched their ideas. “I’m interested to hear more of those pitches fleshed out. Maybe there’s a way to forward me some of that stuff. I would love to read it.” This wasn’t part of the plan; Elder knows Ryan is involved with multiple shows, meaning he is incredibly busy, so she had made no promises that he would follow up in any way on the students’ pitches. However, Ryan seems truly interested in the student’s creative ideas and excited to see how passionate they all are. When Ryan says his goodbyes shortly afterwards and hangs up, the room is filled with a chorus of relieved and pleased cheers.
Elder’s Jan term class has more than met her expectations; she’s worked with an excellent group of students, explored and shared a topic that is important to her, and gotten to speak to (and “fangirl” over, she admits) the showrunner and co-creator of the show. There’s no doubt her students have valued the class just as much. But Elder has one more surprise before the month is over.
When Ryan heard about the class based on his show, he was honored, and he decided to extend his generosity even further than he already had. He asked the cast of the show Timeless to record a message just for the students of Converse College. At the very end of the class, Elder plays the video for her students.
“Greetings to the fabulous women of Converse from the set of Timeless,” says one of three actors standing on the screen. The three play some of the show’s main characters, and the students have become very familiar with them over the course of their class. “Thanks for watching the show. We love you guys. Keep studying hard,” the actors say, waving to the camera.
It’s the perfect end to an already thrilling class – one in which students got more than they signed up for in the absolutely best way.
Photo used with permission. Copyright: NBC/Sony Pictures Television