September 24, 2007 Jill

What I like about Journeyman is the way writer creator, Kevin Falls — a veteran of Sports Night and West Wing, rolls out the premise, a little at a time. He doesn’t feel the need to spell out the story for you. He lets you come and get it. And in doing so, he keeps you wondering and engaged throughout the pilot.


I have tried very hard not to read anything about any of the new season pilots so I could approach my first viewing with fresh eyes. Not only did I have no idea what the premise was for Journeyman, I hadn’t even heard of the show. From the beginning, I was intrigued and I remained in this state of intrigue throughout; wanting to know what was going on, what would happen next. I think that’s a pretty good state for a pilot to throw you into.

Journeyman is a sci fi hour long series. It opened with a longish tease, followed by four acts and a tag.

The teaser has 5 sequences and is longish at about 8 minutes. It has the hardest, most cliff-hanger-y curtain of any act.

Following the titles, Act One has five sequences and runs another 7 minutes.

Act Two has three sequences and runs just over 8 minutes.

Act Three has three sequences and runs about 7 minutes. At 27:27, we get this bit of dialogue:

LIVIA: Stay on it. Go with your instincts.

DAN: What if I get it wrong?

LIVIA: You will. That’s part of it.

A third act statement of theme? Dan is going to have to live by his wits and make plenty of mistakes?

Act 4 is a mere 3 ¼ minutes and is made up of a single sequence yet very important sequence. It provides essential background information and moves the B-story forward.

Finally the tag is three sequences and runs for the final 61/2 minutes of show time.

Let’s look at how the show opens.

In the first scene, we meet Mr. Nice Guy, Dan Vassar. He carries his kid on his back and remembers his anniversary. It functions to do nothing more than make us like our man.

The second scene seems to have two function. First, to set up the rules of the show — that is that nothing is going to get spelled out for you. Second, the scene paints quite the opposite portrait of Dan.

We’re thrown into the middle of a discussion.

HUGH: Vasser! Where is it?

Where’s what? Who are these people? Figure it out, baby. This is the show and this is about to become Dan’s life. Look around, listen, try to make sense of what is going on. No one’s going to tell you. You’ll have to work it out yourself.

This 45 second scene features 10 couplets of dialogue and almost everyone is there to show us the flaws in reporter Dan Vasser. First he calls his boss anal, because he insists on two source. Then he advocates the easy way out: get the story first, get it right second. Next he lets us know that he’s now forgotten his anniversary and he forgot to pick up the present.

Then comes the second sequence. Dan is on familiar territory but something is wrong. It’s 1999 – 8 years ago. Then he sees Livia, hailing a cab.

Boom, back to NOW and Dan’s anniversary dinner with wife Katie. She comes on to him and he looks up at the TV the race results are being given.

DAN: A friend of mine had the winning horse.

KATIE: And a friend of mine had the loser?

Is Dan a gambler? Or was he one in the past? Is this one more thing to the list of Dan Vassar’s flaws?

But through the rest of this sequence, we can see that the marriage is good and Dan is a good father.

But come morning, his side of the bed is empty.

Dan wakes”where? Or better yet, when? A little teaser action sequence involving a baseball bat wielding man and then: 1987.

The tease is over, we’re eight minutes in and deep into the story. We’ve been in three time zones: Now (twice), 1999 and 1987. We’ve been told about Dan’s multiple flaws, although we haven’t seen them in action.

Because we travel with Dan on these bewilderingly adventures through time, we are in his shoes, seeing it through his perspective. We’re with him.

When the POV shifts to the frantic wife, Katie as she seeks help finding her missing husband from his cop-brother, we don’t share her concern. We’ve been privy to information that she hasn’t, information that removes the jeopardy. So the intervention and the speculation about Dan womanizing or the innuendos about gambling lack dramatic edge. The split perspective has already shown us that none of it is true. It’s hard to find an emotional hook in the plotline.

(In Chuck, there was also split focus. From early act one, we left Chuck to see what was up in the world of the spies. We knew they were a danger to Chuck and therefore the drama was heightened; we had more reason to worry about Chuck.)

Throughout the episode, what happens in the past is more compelling.

I like Kevin McKidd in the role of Dan very much, but I find the character not quite as well drawn as I would hope. Falls is walking a fine line here with Dan. One the one hand he refuses to spell out the character to you, just as he won’t spoon-feed you the story. And I like that.

But by the end of the episode I didn’t feel I really knew Dan and that makes me wonder how well Falls really knows him. I’ve mentioned the character beats in the tease which are almost contradictory. In the scenes that follow a lot of other characters talk about Dan. We learn that he has a sordid past, but not too much about it. His brother, wife and boss are wrong when they think that he’s gambling, womanizing, drinking or taking drugs, so it’s hard to take everything else that they say about him seriously.

We want to learn about who he is by how he acts; the choices he makes. And he does make two significant choices. He doesn’t sleep with Livia when he has the chance, because he’s thinking about his wife (we know this because he looks at his wedding ring). And he goes a long way to prove to his wife that he’s gone back in time. He even adds the romantic gesture of putting her wedding ring in the toolbox with the newspaper.

He saves a life here and there, but more by accident than design.

(The whole Neal/wife/kid things is morally murky. Dan saves Neal from committing suicide by throwing himself in front of a trolley, so Neal can father a child with a woman who doesn’t want to be a mother. Dan talks her out of an abortion. Then Neal comes back and wants to kill the wife and kid, but when Dan calls his name, he gets hit by a bus.)

We know he loves his son and he promises him that he’ll be there for the piano recital, but he doesn’t actually do anything that he knows will get him back on time. He does get back on time, but that’s just coincidence. Not character choice.

I want to see Dan’s character develop, deepen. If you’re going to be with a guy on such a strange journey, you want to be able to read him, know what he’s thinking and feeling.

And I am going to be on the Journeyman journey. The PVR’s set. I’m going to keep watching , because I find the premise so intriguing.

Comments (6)

  1. Hey Jill…

    I know this doesn’t really relate to any of the questions you posed, but do you offhand have the content running times of Chuck and Journeyman? It sure felt like Chuck had a lot fewer commercials each break.

  2. admin


    I timed out Journeyman above but I didn’t time Chuck. Plus, I was watching screeners which might have differences from what aired on tv.

    I can’t account for the difference in break length.

  3. Yeah who knows…and I’m not going to sit and time them.

    Well, I’m leaning toward Chuck (despite Zachary Levi’s startling resemblance to Jimmy Fallen…and that’s not a good thing). Journeyman was solid, yet safe. And it feels like I saw it already last year (see: Daybreak)

  4. VeryReadablebill

    Your comment on “Journeyman,” “you have to work it out yourself” (i.e., what’s going on, what the story is about):

    For me this speaks to the core issue of the writer’s assumption of the intelligence of the viewer, and the willingness of that viewer to handle a more non-directive and ambiguous approach to “story.”

    For years the newspaper industry assumed a 9th grade education on the part of its readers, and if you asked editors today, they would probably parrot that old standby.

    Not many shows require more attention and a lengthier suspension of disbelief. Aaron Sorkin tends to write that way (and the really quick dialogue he favors also asks more from the viewer), and “Sports Night” and “The West Wing” and “Studio 60” are now history.

    Anyway, this characterization and categorization of the audience is something I never see addressed, yet I think it’s an important underlying assumption in a bunch of the decisions that get made. The next question, of course, is which audience is the better target for advertising? This is a function both of how much money they have, and their openness (sugesstibility) to the advertisers’ pitch.

  5. Westacular

    One of the main themes in the pilot is helplessness: Dan’s at the whim of forces beyond his control or comprehension, and we watch how this impairs his ability to follow through with many of his good intentions.

    The whole point of the piano recital is to show there’s nothing he _can_ do to guarantee he’ll be back in time. His promise becomes a wish. The show teases us with the prospect of him breaking his promise, emphasizing his helplessness, but rather than add yet another downer they let him show up at the end. This tells us that sometimes, he’ll be lucky. It foreshadows that there’s a chance his life might actually work out.

    I found the “is he on drugs?” aspect worked well enough (not perfect, but ok) to heighten the drama, because (at the time) Dan is unable to prove them wrong. It’s a wrongful persecution angle. What can he do to redeem himself, when he has so little control or understanding of it? He doesn’t just have to figure out what’s going on — which a pilot with less faith in the audience might be content with — but additionally he needs to prove it’s real to the other people in his life. He’s done everything within his power to be a good person, but the deck is stacked against him. This is answered through his trick with the ring in the toolbox. This shows us that sometimes, he’ll be clever enough to overcome these incredible obstacles. That’s really the A-story of the pilot. It will be interesting to see how that present-day story evolves as the series moves forward.

  6. admin

    Great comment, West.

    Small note on the A-/B-Story thing. I always call the arcing set-up the series story in a pilot the A. No particular reason except that I wanted to set a standard system up for the blog and I knew I could remember A=Arc. Then from there it follows that the mystery/case of the week or the episodic plotline that gets resolved is the B.

    In terms of the importance to the episode, it often turns out that the B drives the show, but I go on calling it the B so as not to confuse myself.

    I’m easily confused.

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