[EDIT, May 2014: Journeyman is no longer streaming on any sites, and my embedded clips from Hulu in the review are no longer functioning. Hopefully someday?]
I really loved NBC’s Journeyman for two reasons: first, because I love time travel stories, but more importantly because this was a show about adults. Not “young adults” or twenty-somethings, but people in early middle-age. It showed a real marriage getting tested in unimaginable ways, made up of two good, sensible people who were just trying their best to manage, and the ways your past always lingers with you.
There was a kid on the show, but he wasn’t the focus; there was a sort of double love triangle, but one without fault, a lingering tragedy no one could be held responsible for. Because of the quick cancellation, we never really got into the mythology of show, what was happening and why. The first season mostly dealt with coming to grips with something that upends the daily routine and puts unbelievable stress on a marriage, and since that was the only season we got, we were left with a show in which the sci-fi or fantastical element is the cause of disruption in all the other elements, but not the principle focus of the story. The focus of the story is the marriage between Dan and Katie.
Or at least, that’s how I remember it. I watched this show live when it aired, and once again since discovering it on Hulu, but it’s been a while. This review will be mostly fresh because I can’t remember the details. And as I rewatch and review, I may come to different conclusions.
The first scene reaffirms my theory, however. A scene of domestic harmony, friendly dad carrying a cute kid, and mom making pancakes. They talk about how they slept, she cares about his work, they discuss traffic. It’s their anniversary, and they kid around a bit. It’s all very sweet. Writing it out it seems a bit old-fashioned, but Gretchen Egolf as the wife Katie never feels like a throwback. Their partnership feels very equal and sound.
A quick glimpse into husband Dan Vassar’s (Kevin McKidd) working life: a writer at the San Francisco Register (which is having some problems), Dan is good friends with his boss. And he’s getting a headache.
This would not be worth noting except that it will be the first of many headaches– which are soon followed by a blinding flash of light, as Dan experiences in a cab. Suddenly, he’s walking into a restaurant.
If you hadn’t seen a trailer or heard anything about the show previously, you might think Dan was having some sort of vision, or “seeing his life flash before his eyes” after being hit with a sort of bomb or electro-magnetic pulse. You might not think it’s even a flashback, since he asks the cabbie to take him to “Luna Restaurant” and he’s walking in the doors of “Cafe Luna”. Maybe he just blacked out? Dan is confused too, as he walks into a cheering crowd. But even the extreme newbie would be caught up just about now, when Dan claims they’re cheering for a game won eight years ago. It’s time travel.
When he looks out the window in amazement at Moon Bloodgood, it’s not hard to guess he’s seeing the impossible.
It’s all over in a second, however, and Dan wakes up in the back of a cab and it seems that he has just appeared there. And so our Journeyman’s journey has begun.
As has the pain in the ass this will make him to everyone he knows, starting with Katie. She’s used to him being late (as seen in the first scene), and is understanding; he immediately tells her that he had a “dream” about Livia and she bristles ever so slightly but brushes it off. There’s a story there, clearly, but it’s something they seem to have maturely put behind them.
We’re only in the first few minutes, but I say all this to show how wonderfully the creators of the show laid out the background on which all the craziness will unfold. It doesn’t feel unnaturally tranquil, or sappy– for this the credit really goes to Egolf and McKidd, who play Katie and Dan with warmth, maturity, and respect for each other as partners. Their solid acting will really help hold up the show, when in lesser hands it could have slipped into melodrama.
Oh yeah, and they have a great sex life, too. And no, that’s not the Charmed house in the exterior shot, but it is the one right next door to it! (So says IMDB.)
But, here comes The Crazy. Dan wakes up in Golden Gate park in his underwear, his house is not his house, and in case it wasn’t obvious from the TV, the calendar lets you know we are in Reagan Years. Yes, it’s 1987. And it’s the credits.
The show has done a skillful job of laying out a great foundation for a series, all before the opening credits. This efficiency will do it a lot of favors as it begins to branch out into fantastical territory.
In another economical scene, we’re introduced to Dan’s brother, Jack The Cop (Reed Diamond) and get an important piece of information: when Dan’s gone, he’s gone from his present, too. And we soon learn he is probably gone even longer than he thinks– what seems to be one day for him in 1987 was two by the time he gets back home to 2007.
Refreshingly, he immediately tells his wife all he knows. While he may have had gambling (definitely) or drugs (possibly) in his past, he trusts his wife to believe the truth even though it sounds like lies, or mental illness. So while a secret-life aspect may develop, there aren’t any secrets between Dan and Katie, and that right there was the moment I was sold on Journeyman.
At first blush it would seem this doesn’t pay off– after causing a hit-and-run by “flashing” out of his car while driving, his wife and his friends stage an intervention. But under the circumstances, that’s pretty reasonable, and they do it in a loving and respectful way. It certainly doesn’t make me think less of Katie.
I’ve slipped past what I guess I’ll call the Wrong Of the Week (WOW), as in “put right what once went wrong”– for as in Quantum Leap, Dan is dropped into a situation in the past that he can influence for a better outcome in the future. This week, Dan saves six school children in a bus crash through a Rube Goldberg device of cause-and-effect: he stops a man from killing himself over one woman and tells him to find another, he helps that man become a father by talking to his new girlfriend, and he stops the man from killing his son in a jealous mad rage– thereby leading the son to be an adult who saves the lives of six kids on a bus.
Beautifully woven into this are glimpses into Dan and Katie’s past that make the picture snap into place (and make previous ambiguous comments make sense). Katie and Jack were a happy couple, and Dan and Livia (Moon Bloodgood) were engaged. Katie was happy for them and supportive of her good friend Dan (although if you get her drunk enough, she might accidentally imply she’s secretly into him).
Livia was thought to have been killed in a plane crash (but the body was never found), Dan went through some understandably hard times (I’m guessing that this is when the drugs and gambling might have played a role), Jack messed up his relationship with Katie, and eventually Dan and Katie found each other, got married, and had a child. I’m not saying this from a spoilery point of view, it’s all clearly laid out in this episode between Dan and Jack’s conversation at the station and the engagement brunch scene in 1997. It’s remarkable how efficiently we get all of this information, and none of it feels spoon-fed or info-dumped, nor does the time-travelling delivery system of this background info feel tacked-on or hokey. Would Dan prefer Livia to Katie if he had the chance? Nope, that’s covered too– when Dan flashes back to 1997, he has the chance to sleep with Livia but turns her down in favor of not cheating on his new wife. They had clearly been happy, but the past needs to stay in the past.
A greater mythology is also teased out in between the WOW and the Dan-adapts storyline– Livia is alive! Her body was never found on the plane because she flashed out just before the crash. We only see NewLivia for a few seconds, but she apparently has the same time-travelling thing (curse? affliction? ability?) and presumably that’s where (when?) she’s been all this time. This makes it so our protagonist Dan isn’t entirely in the dark, although NewLivia as a Fount Of Important Information pretty much only confirms what we already know: that Dan is following someone through different points of time, there’s a reason but no real way to know what it is (I keep seeing Al banging on Ziggy and saying “It’s an 86% probability that you’re here to…”), and that he probably shouldn’t let his old self see his new self (implied by her desperately trying to escape being seen by PastLivia). It’s pretty clear we’re going to see NewLivia again, but– and I don’t think this is too spoilery to say, as you could guess it– with one season and an abrupt cancellation, don’t get your hopes up about getting to the bottom of this greater mythology.
In another smart move in a show intended for viewers wise in the ways of time-travelling stories, Dan is nimble in adapting to his new wayward ways, going back to his old apartment and telling Mrs. Shea he forgot his key so he could get some clean clothes, pretending to be PastDan to get some help and some cash from PastLivia, and not sleeping in his pajamas anymore but wearing a proper coat and shoes at lights-out in the last shot of the show. I do remember this pragmatic streak was one of the things that endeared me to this show. If I knew I might wake up in 1987, I’d sleep with some decent shoes on too.
Most importantly, he sensibly buries his wife’s wedding ring and a newspaper in the backyard of the house they will buy where in 2007 a patio has existed for seven years. While Katie has been pushed really far in this episode, when she sees him dig up the paper and the ring, she’s sold.
It’s very satisfying from a “if I were him, I’d…” point of view, because he does the obvious and sensible thing (and he doesn’t talk about it to death, he just does it). It’s also a very moving reunion moment, not sappy –Katie’s “Um, not really,” helps out here– but well-earned by all the moments that came before it. The episode begins and ends with Dan and Katie and their marriage, which also brings a satisfying end to this well-crafted pilot.
And here it is, the entire first episode. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do! (Sorry for all the ads, but Hulu is the only way I can embed it.)