Thursday, June 14, 2007

TV REVIEW: Traveler

Network programming in the 2006-2007 season seems to have taken a cue from television history. Although there are certainly more recent "man on the run" series such as Fox's Prison Break to point at, it appears that at least a few programs this year are authentic children of that classic TV venture, The Fugitive starring David Janssen and Barry Morse. Hopefully, you remember the concept of that sixties series: a reputable doctor (Janssen) is accused of murdering his wife, when in fact the real culprit is the mysterious one-armed man. Pursued by an intractable policeman (the cliched character I term "the hapless pursuer"), the "fugitive" of the title is on the run each week, trying to clear his name.

In 2007, the late and somewhat lamented Fox series Drive falls under the category of Fugitive child. In that adventure, Alex Tully (played by Nathan Fillion), finds his wife not murdered but vanished, and he's the prime suspect in her disappearance. He's then basically corralled into a cross-country road race. The prize at the finish line is learning what became of his wife....and also clearing his name. Sound familiar?

The new series, Traveler, airing on ABC is even more deeply cast in the mold of The Fugitive. Only the narrative here has been cannily updated for our fearful, "War on Terror" epoch. To wit, the series opens with three Yale graduates, Jay Burchell (Matthew Bomer), Tyler Fog (,Logan Marshall-Green) and Will Traveler (Aaron Stanford) playing a harmless prank in the Drexler Museum of Art in Manhattan. Only thing is their prank turns out to be the cover for a surprise terrorist attack organized - allegedly - by Will himself. There's a bombing at the museum, and video surveillance catches Jay and Tyler fleeing the scene; making them public enemy numbers 1 and 2. Now Jay and Tyler are wanted men, on the run from a whole cadre of hapless pursuers in the FBI. In this case, it's not Barry Morse playing the lead pursuer, but Agent Chambers as essayed by Steven Culp. Each week, Fog and Burchell attempt to clear their names and solve a little more of the mystery surrounding the bombing of the Drexler and their mysterious "friend," Will Traveler. This inevitably involves Lost-style flashbacks of the time Will, Tyler and Jay shared a house together on the Yale campus.

Primarily, Traveler has two elements in its favor. The first is that as Americans we indeed dwell in the age of paranoia, and so this new series may be reminiscent of The Fugitive, but it's The Fugitive on steroids. Specifically, series creator David Digilio makes trenchant use of current events to make viewers acutely aware that Burchell and Fog are in deep, deep trouble should they be caught. To wit, these suspects can be classified as "enemy combatants" by the Federal Government, and therefore need not ever even be brought to trial. They can just be "disappeared" and sent to Gitmo forever, never to be seen or heard from again. No charges even need to be brought. Back in the 1960s, Janssen's character at least would have been granted a trial, a fair hearing. Here, the fear and paranoia of the post-9/11 age grants a new kind of immediacy to the time worn The Fugitive premise. These men on the run are guaranteed no quarter, no protection of civil rights as American citizens...nothing. As the protagonists on the show realize, the U.S. Constitution has been "shredded" in favor of security measures designed to "protect us." But what if you're accused of a crime and really are innocent? Humorously, the series also posits a President Shears running the country as our Unitary Executive. And "shears" after all, are what you use to cut a "bush," aren't they?

Traveler's other main "plus" is its pace and speed. This series powers through its running time each week like a runaway train, hardly leaving one time to catch his or her breath. The first episode featured a stunning chase across Manhattan rooftops, with FBI agent Marlow (Viola Davis) in hot pursuit of Fog. The second episode, which saw Burchell and Fog fleeing to "Elysium," the "off-the-radar" home of Tyler's rich but corrupt father, Carlton Fog (William Sadler) included a nighttime car chase that was beautifully edited and harrowingly paced. As an action show, Traveler's credentials are pretty much unimpeachable. One must never forget that this is a "chase" show, and such, it succeeds.

What doesn't work so well for Traveler is almost high-school the level of the writing, which stops to remind audiences at every turn of what just happened on-screen. The audience is granted a quick montage of events that just occurred, or that occurred recently, in case a viewer left the television for a potty break or something. Worse, the flashbacks all end with an important turn of phrase, like "what was Will doing down here?" Then, as we return to the present, that very phrase is repeated, just in case audiences missed it the first time. Short attention span is a problem, certainly, for some people. But for the rest of the audience, this constant rehashing of obvious plot points is not only unnecessary, but somewhat insulting. Traveler isn't the only serial this season that has resorted to this device: the canceled Kidnapped starring Jeremey Sisto utilized the exact same technique. And it was just as annoying there.

Secondly, the two series leads on Traveler - Matthew Bomer and Logan Marshall-Green - virtually redefine the term callow for modern audiences. They are impossibly good-looking, buff and heroic. But they don't register as real people...more like fraternity jocks. At times, when Traveler isn't very, very careful, it plays like the CW's Supernatural: two good-looking guys on the road dealing with "monsters," there real ones, here governmental ones.

The two-dimensionality of the leads on Traveler creates other problems for the series. For instance, it is virtually impossible to believe that agent Marlow, who positively exudes competence and intelligence, would not be able to catch these guys, especially given the resources of the FBI. I mentioned before "the hapless pursuer" cliche, and that's exactly what it is; and Traveler already suffers from it. By allowing the heroes to escape captivity each and every week, the writers of the series only succeed in making the villains look stupid and incompetent. The problem with that is that after a few instances of good guys evading the bad guys, the audience will start to take that victory for granted, and characters like Chambers and Marlow will lose their, teeth, looking ridiculous in the process.

Still, there's much potential to appreciate in Traveler. There's an interesting subplot about Jay's girlfriend, Kim Doherty (Pascale Hutton) and how she is forced to deal with the unwanted celebrity of being a terrorist's girlfriend. Remember how after (the still-unsolved...) Anthrax attacks following 9/11, John Ashcroft and his Justice Department named a professor at some college a "person of interest" in the case and then never bothered to clear him, or charge him? Kim lives in much the same pickle here, and again, it dovetails nicely with current events. This is the terrain where Traveler succeeds beyond expectations: in plucking elements of our national uncertainty about "War on Terror" tactics to generate a real conspiracy, suspense-trip. I hasten to add, it looks like the conspiracy here originates at the Department of Homeland Security.

At this point, it's too early to know for certain if Traveler is merely an action-packed summer treat, or a series that - between the action scenes - speaks importantly and cogently to our times, and will ultimately serve as a cultural time capsule.


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