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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Kevin Falls' new show JOURNEYMAN has a premise with some potential for good or gloppy science fiction. A San Francisco reporter (played by Lucius Vorenus, er, Kevin McKidd) begins inexplicably traveling back in time. Not far. Just ten or twenty years. And when he goes, he disappears in the present. Immediately. As in, raptured out of his speeding car.

This brings up obvious questions. How? Why? And what is he supposed to do about it?

And why the specific times and places, where he runs across certain specific people?

I'll talk details after the warning below. But I found the way the premise is structured well-crafted and intriguing. I'll be going back for a second bite, for sure.

JOURNEYMAN premieres Monday (tomorrow) at 10 pm on NBC and Global. Okay, so watch it, and come back to this post, k?


Journeyman belongs to what seems to be almost a genre these days. He's an Everyman Character with a Supernatural Issue who's caught up in Something Mysterious That's Bigger Than Him. He is simultaneously trying to get to the bottom of the mystery (series arc) while solving individual episodic mysteries. Remember that show last year where the guy kept waking up on the same morning, trying to avoid being framed for murder? You can probably name a couple more. Oh, LOST, for example. Oh, and X-FILES.

Sometimes the character has a superpower he exercises intentionally or unwillingly, sometimes just a problem caused by supernatural forces. The character solves episodic mysteries, but the ongoing questions of How Did I Get This Power and Why and What Am I Supposed to Do With It? keep you hooked on the continuing serial story. Hopefully.

The prototypes for this kind of show didn't always have the Big Mystery arc. I don't remember there being an überplot in TRU CALLING; Tru just found herself a day backwards in time, trying to save someone from becoming a corpse. And in JOAN OF ARCADIA there wasn't an unfolding mystery. It was just, God wants you to do thus and such this week, and the cleverness of the show was how that would turn out in an unexpected way.

The pilot handles this rather nicely.

First of all, kudos for putting some serious heart into the core of the show; that's going to keep us coming back even if the story department loses control of the conspiracy arc. The heart of the show isn't that he's being used in a pawn by, probably, Future People with Supertechnology. (I don't know this, I'm just guessing because someone seems to be sending Dan Vassar back to specific parts of time.) The heart of the show is that Dan lost the love of his life, then stole his brother's girl, who had been madly in love with him all along. Now he's got a kid with her, he loves her, and he's being sent back in time to when the love of his life was still alive.

And he can sleep with her if he wants to. And oh, he wants to. But he can't. ... Can he? Is it cheating if Present You sleeps with your Then Girlfriend back when you weren't even dating your Present Wife?

Oh, and then it turns out that Present Deceased Girlfriend is really still alive, and is involved in the Mysterious Organization that is sending him back in time.

Ouch. That's personal, yo.

As for the conspiracy arc, you get just enough to know that it's going to make sense. They know exactly when and where he's going to be. Which means they presumably know why. But are they sending him? Or are they just following him? And how are they doing it? And why him?

I imagine we won't know the answers till at least the Season One finale, and presumably not all the answers until the series finale.

The website describes the show as "Dan Vassar travels back in time and helps people." Fortunately, it seem to be more complicated than that, since he gets at least one person killed.

Which is an interesting take on time travel. We've seen Marty McFly change his present circumstances by interfering with his past, and the various Enterprise captains interfere with time constantly (to the point where they made the amusing "Trials and Tribble-ations" DS9 ep). What's new is that there is an organization that is apparently tracking these changes and making sure they happen according to plan. How's that supposed to work?

And there's that beautiful moment where Dan, having just turned down sex with the lost love of his life, Past Livia, runs into Future Livia in the hallway. And he knows he's being set up for this, and she's in on it, he puts it together right quick, and asks, "What if I get it wrong." And she says, basically, "You're supposed to."

I bet she knows what happened in Tecumseh, too.

While the episode hits the obligatory note of the wife doubting his sanity, it doesn't waste too much time on him trying to convince her, or her trying to convince him. She jumps right to the intervention. And when that doesn't work, she's ready to end it, until he rather neatly turns her around.

It's always a sticky point in the narrative, when the hero has to tell his main squeeze/sibling/parent the supernatural truth. That secondary character has to doubt his sanity because she'd have to be crazy to believe him without proof. But the audience knows he's not crazy, so we're hoping the screenwriters don't hang out here.

I think the solution is to pack that argument with as much revelatory insight as possible. Show us what sort of people the hero and his significant other is, and what their relationship is. Is she willing to trust him? If not, is it because he's let her down before? (There's a hint of past substance abuse in JOURNEYMAN.)

Does he trust her enough to tell her? And if not, what does that tell us about the relationship?

Then get on with it. She believes or she doesn't believe. Just tell us which and get the hell on with the story. We've seen it so many times before, you can get away with some serious shorthanding. We'll get it.

(Oh and please, don't let all the hero's problems derive from his kneejerk unwillingness to trust his wife with the crazy truth, 'cause that's lame. Though I had an enlightening conversation with Lisa. It turns out that if she explained that she had traveled in time, but in no other way seemed crazy, I would at least consider the possibility that she might have traveled in time. If the situation were reversed, she would figure I was nuts.)

I liked how Kevin Falls handled his revelations in the pilot. I'll be watching the second episode rather closely to see how he keeps it up.

How much are we going to find out about the Mysterious Organization in each episode? I'm guessing very little. I'm guessing it's 95% the episodic story.

The überplot is another sticky issue. How much revelation do you dole out in an episode? Too little and the audience feels cheated. Too much and you have to keep complicating the hidden truth in order to keep your show going. That's where X-FILES wound up getting damn silly.

So here's why Journeyman is particularly interesting to me. I'm developing a contemporary urban metaphysical. I have an Everywoman character with a Supernatural Issue. And beyond the episodic stories, there is an überplot, with a hidden truth she's trying to find out. And a Mysterious Organization. My entire first episode is basically, "Am I crazy"? And I'm wondering how much truth to dole out.

Fortunately, because my network is fond of limited runs, I can measure out the truth in precise doses. I'm writing for a certain number of seasons. I know what revelation my heroine gets at the first season finale. And I know how many episodes I need to get to the series finale, which I also know. If the show goes, I have the liberty to write to that conclusion. I simply have to figure out what revelations want to happen where along the path. There's nothing easy about that, but it's a much saner environment to work in... and you know, I feel blessed.

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On the basis of your recommendation, I'm going to give JOURNEYMAN another chance... a friend passed me a copy of the leaked preview and I jumped ship about twenty minutes in, thinking that if I hadn't begun to form an idea of the premise by that point, then maybe there wasn't going to be one.

By Blogger Stephen Gallagher, at 6:52 AM  

QUANTUM LEAP by any other name...

(Oh, and fyi there was an uberplot to TRU CALLING)

By Blogger Cunningham, at 10:27 AM  

Seems like they lifted a bit from THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE, one of my favorite books . . .

By Blogger Joshua James, at 1:59 PM  

We downloaded the pilot for free on the Tivo (from amazon unbox) and I actually liked it. My husband is the one who gets into all the supernatural/sci fi/time travel stuff - and granted he likes it - but this one I like too.

But Life had the pilot I love the most this season.

By Blogger Nathania Johnson, at 3:55 PM  

Your last paragraph caught me. I have been wondering for a while why more TV is not designed for limited run. I find that when shows are thought to play out indefinitely they inevitably lull out at some point and (maybe) return to the point for a grand finale. Why not plan more TV with beginning/middle/end, even if that is spread over a few years?

Your comment makes it sound like some networks (HBO?) are more prepared for b/m/e series than others. Maybe some time you can say more about that and a bit more about the blessings of writing within this creative constraint.

By Blogger efc, at 12:39 PM  

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