In fictionalized accounts of historical events, writers inevitably project incomplete portraits of characters or recast the characters for dramatic purposes. Historical fiction can be a creative and rewarding means of storytelling and thought-provoking historical commentary. One recent case in which television has missed this mark is in the portrayal of the American Founder David Rittenhouse in NBC’s new television show, “Timeless.”
“Timeless” tells the science-fiction story of an elite team brought together to track down a stolen time machine and foil a sinister rewriting of history. At the center of the plot is an elusive organization known as “Rittenhouse.” Each episode of the show finds the protagonists moving through different moments in history in an effort to prevent disaster and, unknown to the government agents and scientists left in the present, to find out what Rittenhouse intends for the time machine it funded. The show is compelling in its ability to tie together a narrative that blends fact and fiction through various well-known moments in American history. The viewers of the show are rewarded for their historical knowledge as the episodes delve into key events such as Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the Apollo 11 mission, and the Watergate scandal (among others), to creatively imagine how history could have been different.
The problem with “Timeless,” however, is that the portrayal of the historical character at the center of the show’s initial driving mystery fails to reward viewers who are attentive to history. Quite the contrary.
Historical figures weave their way in and out of history in “Timeless,” largely resembling their real counterparts. The portrayal of David Rittenhouse is a glaring exception. A pivotal episode in the first season of “Timeless” culminates in a face-to-face encounter with the protagonists and David Rittenhouse himself, who is revealed to be the mastermind behind the sinister plot to alter American history. The intrepid time travelers might have thought to save their efforts by using Google in the present instead of trekking across time to discover that David Rittenhouse’s alias was in fact his surname. Rittenhouse is portrayed in the episode as a racist, a slave owner, a murderer, and a rapist. This couldn’t be more inaccurate and unfair. In reality, Rittenhouse was a consummate American statesman, inventor, and lifelong abolitionist.
Rittenhouse was in fact a public intellectual who was appointed by George Washington as the first director of the U.S. Mint, designing the first official American currency, and even having a hand in the design of the American flag. In addition to his contributions to American history, he was a world-renowned astronomer for his innovative role in observing the Transit of Venus in 1769 that provided conclusive proof to the validity of Newtonian physics through his precise measurements.
While the choice to portray Rittenhouse differently from his actual character falls under the purview of artistic license, the choice to entirely ignore his remarkable accomplishments and character does him a terrible disservice. The show’s writers seem to have chosen David Rittenhouse as the focal point of their time-traveling conspiracy due to the fact that in addition to his life as a scientist and public servant, he was in reality also an accomplished clockmaker. Beyond that fact there is little to no respect for his real character. In response to a fan on Twitter who was shocked to discover that Rittenhouse was actually a real person, co-creator of the show, Eric Kripke, responded:
Google David Rittenhouse. Real guy. Real clockmaker. But by all accounts, a lovely man & patriot. Sorry for the smear campaign, David!
The portrayal of Rittenhouse in “Timeless” takes one fact about the man and then builds a horribly inaccurate portrait that neglects who Rittenhouse actually was. While the show is creative in its exploration of alternate history, it fails miserably in its depiction of Rittenhouse. For those watching the show, their first exposure to David Rittenhouse is that of a detestable man, rather than the famous intellectual, patriot, astronomer, and inventor.
Rather than stimulating the imaginations of its viewers in a meaningful way by offering a compelling portrait of the enigmatic David Rittenhouse, “Timeless” provides them with a lazy and misleading portrayal. While “Timeless” is undoubtedly a captivating television show, it falls short of greatness for its careless portrayal of a central figure in the early plot development of the series.
Unfortunately, the show seems to have more effectively promoted misinformation about David Rittenhouse than it has renewed public interest in his biography. As the series rewrites history, hopefully it can rectify its wrong towards Rittenhouse.