Journeyman: “Pilot”


Mondays on NBC


Written by Kevin Falls

Directed by Alex Graves

Reviewed by Sarah Stegall

If this is 1987, it must be San Francisco. The premise of “Journeyman”, NBC’s new Monday night series, is pretty much the same as “Quantum Leap”, “Early Edition” and “Sliders”–a nice guy is jerked willy-nilly back and forth in time, apparently on some mission he has to puzzle out, that ultimately has him saving the world. Or at least one guy’s life. Yeah, we’ve seen all this before. But that’s all right–I liked “Quantum Leap” and “Sliders”, and don’t mind revisiting this always-interesting concept. This time around, the cast is top-notch and the setting can’t be beat for romance–it’s San Francisco, and our hero, Dan Vasser, is played by Kevin McKidd (“Rome”), backed up by Gretchen Egolf (“Roswell”) as his highly-skeptical wife Katie, Reed Diamond (“Homicide: Life on the Street”) as his cop brother Jack, and Moon Bloodgood (“Day Break”) as a dead fiancée, Livia, whom Dan meets again on a trip into the past.

As difficult as life is for an inadvertent time traveler, it’s made worse by the fact that Dan’s past and present love life keeps getting tangled up. It’s no wonder McKidd seems to wander through this story with a puzzled expression. I found it hard to keep track of who was who when–his current wife is his brother’s former fiancée and best friend of his own former fiancée? Matters get more complicated when, during one jaunt into the past, Dan is offered chance at a roll in the hay with the love of his life; virtuously resisting (despite the fact that, at this time, he is in factengaged to her), he leaves the apartment–only to come face to face with her again in the hallway. More confusion–not only is this not the Livia he just left behind in the bedroom, this appears to be a Livia from his own time. Which can’t be right, because in his “present” Livia is dead. She runs away, calling out cryptic advice to him to follow his instincts, and disappears. Was she a ghost? Did she really die in that plane crash? And what year is this anyway? So yeah, Dan looks baffled most of the time.

The manner of his time travel is a complete mystery; sometimes the air ripples and he wakes up in the middle of a park in the past; sometimes he seems to simply walk across the street to find himself back in his own time. There are very few clues in the landscape of San Francisco to let us know what era we’re in. Wandering back and forth in time like an ant on a möbius strip, Dan always comes back home to his three story Victorian mansion in San Francisco (and the idea that a newspaper reporter can afford that house is the most fantastic element in this show). Sometimes it’s his house, sometimes it’s someone else’s, and sometimes it doesn’t belong to anyone at all. In the end, the house itself becomes the vital element that persuades Katie that Dan is not hallucinating, snorting coke, or off on a gambling spree. In one of his trips back into the past, Dan realizes he’s carrying Katie’s wedding ring, which he  had picked up from a jeweler. He buries it in what is then the empty back yard of his future house; twenty years later, he digs it up in a pouring rain to demonstrate to her that he has, in fact, traveled through time. It’s a clever idea and a well played scene. I hope Katie’s character will now move forward, dropping the annoying, by-the-numbers skepticism she displays throughout the pilot.

The one “character” in this show that anchors it the most is the city of San Francisco. How fortunate that Dan apparently has lived there during the past twenty years, because when he finds himself adrift in, say, 1998, he knows where his apartment and his wardrobe can be found. I found it refreshing that, despite being naturally disoriented by time travel, Dan is savvy enough to put this time travel business to good use–he knows who to call for help, knows the City inside out, and can even find his favorite cafe still in the same place.

The producers seem to be trying to duplicate the sense of dislocation, ambiguity and paranoia induced by the constant flashbacks that are Lost’s hallmarks. The problem is that the flashbacks in Lost are obvious; either the characters are on a tropical island or they’re not. But in Journeyman, all the scenes are set in the same City, so it’s hard to tell “when” we are. A few background billboards and newspaper headlines fail to resolve this confusion. Worse, there is no explanation of the time travel phenomenon, or why Dan was picked for this “mission”, or who else might be involved (although, as noted, Livia seems to be a fellow time traveler). The logic of this time traveling bothers me, as well–while I was delighted by scenes in which Dan sees his earlier self, I wondered why his fiancée didn’t comment on the fact that he’d aged twenty years since lunch. And of course, there’s the perennial question of the ripple effect–whatever Dan does in the past will affect his future/present. How does he know he’s not destroying it? Wouldn’t he be paralyzed with fear? And wouldn’t he bet heavily on the next few Super Bowls, since he knows who wins? Imagine how he could clean up by betting that Arnold Schwarzenegger would become governor of the Golden State.

McKidd carries the entire show, and I’m not sure those shoulders are broad enough. There’s nothing wrong with his performance (except McKidd’s tendency to mumble), but he has a great deal to carry. The story is heavy on half-exposition, as it were–there are hints of brotherly rival over Katie, bitter resentment over past quarrels, a lingering jealousy of Livia on Katie’s part. This is an attempt to introduce complexity through layers, but it just winds up being confusing. We don’t know which clues are important and which aren’t. The unrelentingly somber tone of the show needs some lightening; it wouldn’t hurt to have Dan show a little humor at what are, at best, absurd circumstances. Executive producers Kevin Falls and Alex Graves (both veterans of “The West Wing”) will have to give us a little more clarity in coming episodes if the audience is not to be left as puzzled as Dan Vasser. The show will probably get a good ratings boost from it’s lead-in, the popular “Heroes”, but it had better find its own feet fast; right now, there just isn’t enough that’s special about “Journeyman” to make it must-see TV.