OK, so I watched the first two episodes of the new NBC TV show Blindspot because I’m a big fan of cool stories about time travel.
Sadly, it turns out this show is not a cool story about time travel. This is both disappointing and surprising. It feels almost like a broken promise. See for yourself. Here is NBC’s official synopsis of the show’s premise:
A beautiful woman, with no memories of her past, is found naked in Times Square with her body fully covered in intricate tattoos. Her discovery sets off a vast and complex mystery that immediately ignites the attention of the FBI, which begins to follow the road map on her body into a larger conspiracy of crime, while bringing her closer to discovering the truth about her identity.
That has elements of your basic Bourne Identity or John Doe type story — the mysteriously omni-skilled stranger who arrives with no memory and no explanation. I like those stories. They’re fun. But the mystery woman in this case is also covered neck-to-toe in tattoos that apparently offer coded clues to crimes that haven’t happened yet. All of that, to me, suggests only one obvious explanation: She traveled back in time from the future.
Yet that doesn’t seem to be the show’s premise. It’s not at all a Bad Thing that the show’s premise turns out not to have the explanation I was expecting, but it would be a Very Bad Thing if the as-yet-to-be-revealed explanation for its premise doesn’t actually manage to explain it. And that’s what I’m worried we’re seeing here. (Like many people, I approach new shows like this with a post-Lost, post-Heroes skepticism.)
More specifically, I’m worried that Blindspot is looking like an attempt to imitate the formula of The Blacklist, with mystery-woman “Jane’s” tattoos substituting for tips from James Spader’s criminal network. That would be disappointing for at least two reasons. First, we’d be talking about The Blacklist without James Spader, which is a self-evidently terrible idea. And second because all those tattoos are already written — meaning they had to have been designed and drawn by someone with knowledge of the future.
How do we explain such precise and ink-certain knowledge of the future? Well, the most obvious explanation is that these tattoos were written by someone in that future and sent back in time from that future. Whether or not time travel is even theoretically possible in reality, it’s definitely possible in stories, where it’s endured as a delightful plot device for more than a century. And the startling opening minutes of Blindspot’s first episode seemed, to me at least, to be building on the time-honored conventions of time-travel stories.
Granted, there are other stories that involve certain, detailed knowledge of the future that don’t involve time travel, so it’s possible to come up with other explanations that could be presented here. But any of those explanations is likely to involve something just as outlandish as time travel. The examples of other such stories that I can think of all involve elements of science fiction (as in the miraculous algorithms of Person of Interest), or elements of supernatural fantasy (as with the inscrutable guardian angels of Early Edition or Tru’s “calling” in Tru Calling).*But I don’t find those sorts of explanations any more convincing or credible than just making the leap to time travel. Person of Interest strains to make its data-mining explanation for knowledge of the future seem real-world plausible, but that doesn’t make it more story-plausible.** And in any case, none of those other explanations seems as capable as Terminator-style time travel to account for all of what we saw in the engaging first 10 minutes of Blindspot: 1) Jane’s sudden, mysterious appearance as though from nowhere; 2) her tattoos carrying coded information about the future; and 3) her amnesia.
Put all those together and I was so convinced this had to be a time-travel story that I wanted to see them inspect the duffle bag to see if it was perhaps bigger on the inside.
Just because this turns out not to be a cool story about time travel doesn’t mean it can’t still turn out to be a cool story about something else. I’m disappointed that Jane got her combat training in the present-day military rather than in the CPS Academy with Kiera Cameron, but I’m still willing to give these storytellers a shot because — time travel or not — they’ve so far managed to keep me wondering what happens next.
But if all that happens next turns out to be a string of tattoo-of-the-week cases then I’m unlikely to stick around until they run out of tattoos.
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* Blindspot seems, in some ways, like a mash-up of a couple of Eliza Dushku shows, combining the warnings of/from the future of Tru Calling with the blank-slate hero with a tragic shadowy past of Dollhouse.
The show also reminds me of Dollhouse in another way, in that it features a “strong female” character and really seems to want to be vaguely feminist even though that woman has been robbed of her personhood and even though when we first met her she was naked and stuffed in a duffle bag. To its credit, Blindspot, like Dollhouse, seems to recognize that its premise starts with a horrible violation of its female lead. We’ll see how they deal with that.
** One of the things that was charming about Early Edition was its refusal to explain where tomorrow’s newspaper was coming from or how any of this was happening. The show just sort of asserted its premise and invited you along for the ride. Kyle Chandler gets tomorrow’s newspaper every morning and tries to prevent the (local) tragedies it records, OK? Are you in or out? Unlike Lost, it didn’t seem to promise that this would all be explained eventually, so viewers didn’t have to deal with the show ever breaking that promise.