By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 10, 2007
Not so long ago, movies that depicted the modern world as oppressive and Big Brotherly were set in the future. The new ABC action drama "Traveler" isn't placed any further into the future than, say, a minute from now. But that doesn't stop its heroes from being persecuted by such dark forces as bad guys pretending to be FBI agents, and perhaps by real FBI agents who are part of the bad-guy establishment -- and by some vast, sinister conspiracy.
Within the first 15 minutes of tonight's pilot episode (curiously, the show doesn't air a second episode until May 30), Will Traveler and two of his college buddies are on the lam. Pals Jay and Tyler are forced into running for their lives, but Will is missing, perhaps having been reduced to a heap of cinders by a bomb he might have set off himself.
In a paranoid, post-9/11 world, Jay and Tyler (and maybe Will, wherever he is) know that police, federal agents and other minions of the law might shoot first, ask questions later, or perhaps forgo questions altogether. Although Jay and Tyler are innocent of any crime, the notion of turning themselves in is discounted almost at once. As Jay explains to a mystified girlfriend: "If we go in now, they will ship us straight to Guantanamo Bay."
"Traveler" isn't the first show to suggest that a menacing corruption exists in the highest levels of government, but it does seem to view that more as a given than as just a ghastly possibility. "The authorities" are not necessarily to be trusted.
The show is not a political allegory, however, and can easily be enjoyed simply as a fairly proficient thriller, pushing the kind of buttons that Alfred Hitchcock used to push with such films as "North by Northwest" -- although here they're pushed with much less artfulness and finesse. It's also conceivable that when pitching the idea for the series to network executives, writer David DiGilio might have said something like: "Look, one 'Fugitive' on the run was dynamite. Imagine what two or three 'Fugitives' might do."
Director David Nutter obviously enjoys watching characters run, run, run. They're running even as the show begins, giving viewers a blurry, whirly foot tour of New York, which is photographed gorgeously throughout. It could be that the show will leave New York behind, because the first episode ends with the boys attempting to cross one of the city's many bridges and continuing to be chased.
The three friends had a plan, as college pals often do: They will spend the first months after school traveling around the country, using as their guide not a book full of places to get cheap eats, but rather Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." Oh, they're a thoughtful trio of pranksters, exchanging such profundities as: "Gotta see the world before you can change it." It appears they will confine themselves to the North American part of "the world," however, since their stated goal is to "step off the path and see what makes this country tick."
If that's what they want, they could stay home and watch television. Then again, a television show about people watching television probably wouldn't be much of a television show.
The boys foolishly begin their tour with a moronic practical joke, racing on Rollerblades through a huge Manhattan museum. At least that's the plan. Although Jay and Tyler roll successfully out the door, with security guards in hot pursuit, they soon realize that Will isn't with them. Instead, he calls them on a cellphone and says cryptically, "Sorry I had to do this." A nanosecond later, the museum blows up, thick clouds of black smoke pouring from its once-stately windows.
Although a museum might seem an unusual target for a terrorist, everyone instantly assumes this to have been a political terrorist attack. Conveniently enough, security cameras have captured about 100 shots of Jay and Tyler on their skating spree, although Will appears to have escaped the prying lenses. Indeed, when Jay goes through a box of college mementos, he discovers there's nary a clear photo of Will's face anywhere, as if his whole life were some kind of covert operation.
Will is played by Aaron Stanford, Jay by Matthew Bomer and Tyler by Logan Marshall-Green. Their performances are about 99 percent physical; this is one of those shows where one hopes the actors got paid by the mile.
Loose ends and possible red herrings abound. Perhaps in time it will all make sense -- and viewers won't be led through endless halls of mirrors, as on "Lost."
The race is off to a good start, but the "mission accomplished" banner appears to be a long way off.
Traveler (one hour) premieres tonight at 10 on WJLA (Channel 7), then moves to its regular slot beginning May 30 at 10.