Owing more than a little to Quantum Leap, the new time-traveling series Journeyman promises a compelling sense of disorder: When Dan Vassar (Rome’s Kevin McKidd) goes back in time, he has no control over where or when he’ll go, or when he’ll come back. And since he simply disappears from the present, time passes while he’s away, which causes all sorts of trouble at home and at the office. Over the course of the pilot episode, his unexplained absences put him in trouble with the police (who want him for a hit-and-run), his boss (who stages an intervention for suspected drug abuse), and his wife (who’s on the verge of divorcing him for missing their anniversary, his son’s recital, and other stock family-related events). While it would too much to ask for a network television show to sustain that level of disorientation over its entire run, Journeyman loses much of its allure when it finally straightens out.
It does have a few good things going for it, however, not least McKidd, who displays much of the steely intensity that made him such a force on Rome. Here he plays a San Francisco reporter who’s married to his cop brother’s ex-wife—a situation that was tense enough before his time-traveling started mucking up the works. His first trip back in time puts him in a position to save a suicidal man from death-by-trolley, but that’s not the end of the story. Subsequent trips keep bringing him back within the man’s orbit, until he figures out how exactly he’s supposed to intervene. Who or what controls the Hands Of Fate is unclear—and will likely never be revealed—but Dan quickly learns that he’s been given a mission in life and it’s ultimately not worth questioning why he’s being jerked around.
Dan’s adventures in the past head into two areas, one episodic and the other serial. The episodic stuff is considerably less interesting: Having him go back in time to right wrongs or twist fate in a just direction gets stale after two episodes, though it may get better if he fails some of his (divine?) missions and makes the future bleaker as a result. As a serial, the show’s more promising: In the past, Dan frequently encounters his long-assumed-dead ex-fiancée, and that complicates his feelings for her (which are still strong) and his loyalty to his wife. Presented with an opportunity to have sex with his former flame in the past, he’s given pause by the thought that he’s being unfaithful to his wife in the present, even though they’re technically not together yet. Similarly, he has to watch his current wife screw around with his brother in the past and he’s the one who feels cheated upon. On top of all that, he has to avoid running into himself, which wreaks all sorts of metaphysical havoc, because he’s using his old apartment as a base station of sorts.
Got all that? Time-twisters like Journeyman are fun to puzzle out, and it’ll be interesting to see if Dan’s mistakes—like paying for a cab ride with a modern, off-center $20 bill or leaving his iPhone in 1991—have any serious impact on the future. If nothing changes and the show keeps hitting the “reset” button every week, it’ll become a bore, since no one outside of McKidd (not even the excellent Reed Diamond, late of Homicide, as Dan’s brother) makes much of an impression and the writing is pretty flat. Based on the pilot’s terrific ending, there’s reason to believe that clever plotting might overcome the show’s more generic elements. But after more of the same in the second episode, I’m putting this one on a short leash.
• The signposts for each time period are Reunion-level lazy: Usually, there’s just an easily recognizable pop song—10,000 Maniacs’ “Trouble Me” in 1989, Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova” in 1997, et al.—and maybe a few cheap details in the production design. My favorite: A billboard for the movie Less Than Zero, 1987. Ah, those were the days…
• iPhones and Bluetooth technology don’t work in the past, so the hero has to bring his ancient, forearm-sized cell phone back with him, presumably counting on his ancient cell phone contract to still be active.
• Sometimes, the show can get pretty broad and moralistic. In the same episode: An old Pan Am flight from back in the days when smoking was still allowed on flights is made to look like a hippie bacchanal; the site of a boring old mortgage convention in the past becomes the Internet Erotica Convention in the present; and a former good girl goes bad when she stands in line for a punk show wearing beat-up clothes and a nose-ring.
• I’ve reviewed three new shows so far and two of them prominently feature Peter Bjorn & John’s “Young Folks.” Is it possible for a song to be too infectious?