The premiere of Journeyman catapults Dan Vasser (Kevin McKidd) back through time. This allows him, in a San Francisco of the recent past, to intervene in the lives of others to remedy wrongs that would otherwise precipitate disaster in the present. Despite obvious similarities, the premise does not quite echo that of Quantum Leap. Dan doesn’t inhabit anyone’s body but his own, and runs the risk of meeting his past himself. He also meets the earlier version of his brother Jack (Reed Diamond), wife Katie (Gretchen Egoll) and, apparently most importantly, beautiful Livia (Moon Bloodgood), the fiancée he might still love, who died in a plane crash nine years earlier.
No amount of philosophical study or science fiction reading would enable a viewer to disentangle the existential questions raised by such cavalier treatment of time, so the series simply pretends they do not exist. Instead, Dan wallows in the security of a loving, if furious and puzzled, wife, and simultaneously indulges in a tantalizing replay of his affair with her never-forgotten predecessor. In this absurd male wish fulfillment, a midlife crisis involves having one’s cake and eating it, and having it all over again tomorrow, yesterday, and 10 or 20 years ago, too.
The casting of Kevin McKidd, who has all the bad-boy charm of fellow Brits like Daniel Craig and Sean Connery, gives Dan some credibility as a man whose family life sits unsteadily atop a past of drinking, gambling, and drug use. But while McKidd is burning up the primetime screen, the rest of the cast is sleepwalking through a Lifetime movie. When Dan returns to his home, dirty and unshaven after going missing for two days, even McKidd’s mother might believe he’d barely survived an epic bender. And when Dan grabs a pickaxe to attack, with manic energy for fear of losing his sanity, the concrete patio in his back garden, his desperation is riveting. But then Katie rushes up the steps to the house, squeaking with the terror of someone who has almost stepped on a dead mouse (except for a key scene when she channels a Teri Hatcher-like goofiness, Egoll simply fills the space opposite McKidd). Jack, Katie’s ex, is similarly limited. As the only actor who could cause an episode of Homicide: Life on the Streets to turn banal, Diamond makes it easy to believe Katie would reject him in favor of Dan.
While the characters flail, the show spirals around two central conceits — Dan’s time-traveling do-gooding and his too-trendy access to the dead. While Dan’s encounters with Livia offer a twist on the tired “Will they or won’t they?” tension, their encounters are soaked in sentimentality. A repeat of the last time he ever saw her and a wistful, almost-erotic encounter in their bedroom, suggest Dan is not so much reliving the past as idealizing it.
Though Dan himself maintains an eerie remove during his voyeuristic observations of his younger self, these scenes never cohere into creepiness or complexity. In this, Journeyman recalls The West Wing, on which both writer Kevin Falls and director Alex Graves both worked, where fine ensemble acting and liberal-leaning storylines couldn’t hide a heart of socially conservative superficiality. Occasionally, the episode glints with the tart dialogue and swift-moving scenes that provided so much incidental pleasure on The West Wing. Dan’s attempt to explain the time travel to Katie elicits an acid inquiry about exactly how many other couples in San Francisco are having the same conversation. And when he’s urged to seek help, his face conveys, in a quick series of changing expressions, the sheer hopelessness of responding sensibly to the assembly of friends and family immersed in self-help culture and “intervention” therapy.
By the end of the premiere episode, however, the emotionalized mechanics of time travel are more likely to prompt surreal speculation on the effects of sex outside the space-time continuum than interest in what happens to Dan. That’s mostly set by formula anyway, as he’s the hero whose wife won’t leave and who won’t get fired from his lucrative job, even although a reporter who can only go back to the past is no asset for a newspaper interested in today’s scandals. Though the show might conjure intriguing plots from a kicked-out down-and-outer’s time travels. If he had no cozy present to return to, the past might look very different.
It could be that the future will be different too. A late-developing plotline suggests that neither death nor the past are what they seem, occasioning little islands of irony. Once freed from the scaffolding and backstory constraints of a series premiere, Journeyman may find itself.