The Running (and Jumping) Man
We’re not even to the first commercial break, and already Dr. Richard Kimble (Wings’ Tim Daly) has seen his wife murdered; fought off the one-armed man, been tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, survived a multiple car pile-up; jumped onto a moving truck; and avoided an oncoming highway sign by performing a superhuman acrobatic maneuver. You go, doc.
This lightning-quick opening sequence, told in a jumpy, flashback style, assumes its audience has picked up on The Fugitive‘s basic premise over the years, either from the 1963-67 television series, the 1993 Harrison Ford film, or one of the countless promos CBS ran during Survivor and Big Brother. Before the show even begins, most viewers probably know Kimble is innocent (“I didn’t kill my wife!”), that the real murderer is the one-armed man (played here by Stephen Lang), and that a relentless detective named Gerard (Mykelti Williamson, perhaps best known for his role as Bubba in Forrest Gump) is hot on his trail.
But dispensing with the setup is a questionable strategy, especially since television is better suited to character-oriented drama than action-packed shoot ‘em ups. The film version, which was limited to a mere two hours, invested a surprising amount of time to developing Kimble as a character, showing his life before the murder and making his fate an obvious tragedy. The new series, which theoretically has a much longer time to spin its story, cuts straight to the chase, cutting out most of the emotional potential and suspense in the process. The archetypal “fugitive” story hinges on an exploration of duality the struggle between the real and unreal, honesty and deception, isolation and community, law and criminality. But this version of The Fugitive is more interested in going through the motions of its premise than in exploring the depths of its characters or any possible meanings of their experiences. So what we’re left with is a string of TV-caliber action sequences, like Kimble jumping off a building, that only serve to remind us how cool it was when Harrison Ford plummeted off that dam.
The premiere episode has only about 50 minutes to work with, and instead of focusing on Kimble’s struggle to come to terms with his new existence, it makes an immediate jump to a head-scratching plot involving a construction company using sub-grade steel. It’s a case of intertextuality gone wrong, as the show expects the audience to fill in too many blanks from other sources. Sure, we know the story, and the concept is familiar from shows like Quantum Leap, The Incredible Hulk, and The Pretender, but as the basis for what could be a long-running series, the pilot fails to give us a proper introduction to the specifics of what make Kimble and Gerard tick, or brew up anything beyond the most simplistic of conflicts. Gerard is chasing Kimble purely because that’s what the fugitive/law dynamic requires him to do. Tommy Lee Jones’ Gerard was clearly a badass (Kimble: “I didn’t kill my wife.” Gerard: “I don’t care.”) and more than a match for Harrison Ford; by comparison, Williamson comes across as slightly incompetent, as if he’s in over his head. He gets his gun taken away from him more than once and survives only because Kimble allows him to. The fact that he’s black has not played a role, which is good in the sense that the show isn’t going after obvious racial conflict; but it’s also unfortunate since the character is shaping up to be yet another in a long line of passive, black authority figures on television.
What ultimately keeps the show watchable is Daly, who successfully blends the toughness of an action hero with the vulnerability of a terminally honest man forced to constantly deceive. It’s a testament to his ability as an actor that he’s been able to build Kimble’s character through body language and facial expressions when the scripts have given him so little to work with. The situations Kimble has been involved in so far are laughably improbable, but that’s what The Fugitive seems to pride itself on. In the second episode, Kimble gets in touch with his sister (Spin City‘s Connie Britton), who sends him much-needed cash. It’s then quickly stolen by the husband of a Parkinson’s sufferer who needs the money for medication. As a matter of course, Kimble forgives the man and uses his medical knowledge to help get the wife into an experimental treatment program, all while evading the cops and tracking down the one-armed man. Over the course of the episode, he also gets hit by a car, jumps a few stories into a pile of garbage, and leaps over a moving drawbridge as the one-armed man is shooting at him. These impossible circumstances are part of the show’s somewhat limited bag of tricks, but having Kimble cheat death multiple times every week considerably decreases the “wow” factor of these logic-defying stunts. From now on, just one against-all-odds leap of faith per episode will do.
The intrinsic problem with this version of The Fugitive is that nothing is at stake, either emotionally or thematically. After just two episodes, the show’s formula is already in danger of becoming stale: Kimble enters a new town, gets tracked down by Gerard, does his good deed for the day, and then splits. Rinse and repeat. As long as the show is successful, Kimble will keep running. The Fugitive film worked because it was self-contained and didn’t stretch its concept too far. But the series has a tougher job; it has to make us believe that a death row escapee in the year 2000 could evade authorities for weeks, months, or even years. In an age of cell phones, e-mail, satellite surveillance, and constant media coverage, it’s a quaint notion that a person could remain hidden for that long. To its credit, the show has woven in some modern references, such as America’s Most Wanted, Gerard using an ATM camera to track Kimble, and Kimble using a search engine to find the one-armed man. But when it comes down to it, this use of technology is just window dressing. A more daring and relevant version of The Fugitive concept could be imagined as a smart, paranoid, techno-thriller, but for now we’re stuck with a show about a nice guy who can run faster than the cops and is really good at surviving big falls.