This NBC Show Used The N-Word & Nobody Noticed

Photo: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC.
I started watching Timeless, NBC's new time-travel series, as a guilty pleasure. (A show about a badass historian kicking ass through American history? Sign me up!) But seven episodes in, I have to admit, I'm hooked — and not ironically.
The show, while incredibly campy at times (part of its charm), is a smart, and surprisingly nuanced, portrayal of what it's like to time-travel when one isn't a straight white man from 1985. Which is why I was so astounded when I heard someone use a racial slur during the most recent episode, which aired November 21.

Even if you're an avid viewer, chances are you didn't catch it. It is uttered in French, by an extra, roughly three-quarters into "Stranded," in which our team of intrepid time travelers gets stuck in 1754, smack in the middle of the French and Indian war.

If you haven't caught on to this show yet (and you really should), here's some context: Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer), Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter), and Rufus Carlin (Malcolm Barrett) have been chasing a criminal named Garcia Flynn through time, at the behest of the U.S. government. The trio arrives in 1754 only to get kidnapped by French soldiers. Our friends escape, but not before Wyatt kills one of the French soldiers. The team arrives back at the time machine (nicknamed The Lifeboat), just in time to see Flynn's henchman blow a C-4-sized hole in the hull. Rufus says he can fix it, but to do so, he needs tools, which can only be found at the French fort nearby. Lucy, Wyatt, and Rufus sneak into the fort, followed closely by what remains of the French garrison who kidnapped them earlier, which leads us to the racial slur incident.

Rufus is Black. The show, to its credit, hasn't shied away from examining — with well-placed humor — how crappy time traveling is for a person of color. To quote Louis C.K., "Black people can't fuck with time machines. A Black guy with a time machine is like: 'Hey, anything before 1980, no thank you.'" So when describing the so-called "spies" he's looking for to the sentry, the French soldier refers to Rufus with the French equivalent of the n-word.

The subtitles provided for non-French speakers, however, don't reflect that at all. Rather, the words on the screen read: "Three spies. A woman, a man, and a slave."

Did NBC think that no one would notice if the word was said in French? Given the questionable accents in the supposedly French camp, it's entirely possible. Perhaps the producers were trying to stay true to the time? While I tend to applaud historical accuracy, I don't really look for it in my lighthearted time-traveling sitcom, especially if the show doesn't own up to a creative decision like this in the subtitles meant for English-speaking viewers. Most likely, nobody bothered to get a French translator to proof the script.

The use of the n-word on TV can be justified. Black-ishhas used it judiciously, and with good reason. But in the case of Timeless, it felt more like a translation oversight, rather than a calculated statement for historical accuracy. And that's something Lucy Preston definitely wouldn't approve of.

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