October 10, 2007 Jill

I watched two episodes of Journeyman last night – 102 and 103. The show has a very clear formula. There’s an A-story in the now involving Kate and perhaps another of the present time characters. The B-story takes place in the past and Dan is required to figure out what he’s supposed to do. And finally there’s a little C-story of two to three beats with Livia — the girl from Dan’s past.

There is a teaser, followed by four acts and a tag. Dan is in the past in every act, including the teaser and tag. Some trips cross an act break so in each episode there were only 4 distinct trips to the past.

The form of the acts can be cutting back and forth between Kate in the present and Dan in the past. Or we might get the entire time travel episode in a single sequence with present tense sequences just before, just after or both.

In both 102 and 103, Livia made three appearances. In 102, she’s in Act 1, 2 and 4 and in 103, she’s in Acts 1, 2 and 3. Mostly she offers cryptic advice about the trip and refuses to give Dan much information about what’s happening to him. This is a story line that’s very much arced across episodes rather than having a lot of movement in a single episode.

Act curtains aren’t overly dramatic. In 102, the teaser curtain is a woman in labour on a plane and Dan takes off his sweater signifying that he’s going to help deliver a baby. These are act breaks that say “more to come” or “we’ll finish the scene after you fast forward through some commercials.” They don’t keep you on the edge of your seat, frantic to find out what’s going to happen next.

The stories that take place in the past are quite simple. Dan meets people at various moments in their lives and influences some of their choices. The stakes aren’t especially high, the people are fairly ordinary and frequently flawed. Dan’s effect on them isn’t a straight line, there’s a minor twist at the end. Still his influence doesn’t strike me as extraordinary.

In 102, he is present for the birth of a girl. In the next past sequence, he convinces the mother to tell her who her father is. In the next, he appears just as the girl is about to introduce herself to said father for the first time and when she chickens out, he forces the issue only to see the father spit in her face. Then during the next time travel sequence, he learns the father is dying and brings the girl to him so she can provide tissue for a transplant and save him. Finally he meets up with her in the present to learn she didn’t save her father, but her bone marrow was a match for some other guy who is now doing important humanitarian work.

But the humanitarian and his good works are off screen and so there’s not a lot of impact for us. It’s not really a terribly satisfying episodic conclusion.

The A-story is about whether Dan and Kate should be trying to have another child. So there is a little thematic resonance between the two plot lines. Both have to do with father-child relationships. But I’m not quite sure how the incidents in the past could have influenced Dan’s decision to stop pressing for a second child.

I wasn’t too drawn into the A-story anyway. What business does he have trying for another child at this moment of upheaval in his life? He could at least wait a couple of months till he understands the time travel thing a little better. What exactly was the hurry all about?

But what bugged me the most about the A is really Kate’s attitude. How long is this woman going to make her angst about her husband’s superpower the focus of their lives? Enough whining already, he can’t control it and so what if you have to host a dinner party yourself every now and then? Something quite enormous is happening to him. It is going to effect her. I’d like to see her deal with it.

In 103, they hinted at a better role for Kate — she helps Dan with the present tense story he’s writing and with his investigation of what’s going on in the past. She could be a useful assistant for Dan.

But part of the premise is that Dan is caught between the woman in his past (Livia) and the one in his present (wife Kate). Dan is clearly committed to the wife and has refused to kiss Livia or step over the boundaries with her. But in the tag of 103, Kate finds Livia’s watch and is gearing up for some jealousy.

This poor character is not getting good service from the writers. The audience knows Dan can’t help his time traveling, but she’s all whiny about it. We know he’s loyal and true, but she’s jealous. It’s hard to empathize with her, so I end up disliking her.

The 103 B-story seemed to be a little more successful than the others we’ve seen so far. Dan struggles with the mission — he wants to save his boss’s sister from the earthquake, but instead has to help the unlikeable gambler hit bottom.

This provides thematic resonance with Dan’s now life. We get to explore addictions and how they play out with several characters. Dan is able not only to influence Alan’s life, but also his boss’s present tense life.

I’m still intrigued by Journeyman and its premise. I think 103 is a step in the right direction. The story that takes place in the past has to have some turns. And it also needs to resonate with Dan’s present.

Now if they can just figure out what to do with Kate”

Comments (3)

  1. don young

    hi Jill…I read your posts carefully and (unlike mine) they are well thought out, clear, and really informative. I watch TV differently now.

    As a non-fiction writer I’m intrigued by your almost “mechanical” dissection of shows like Journeyman. If you don’t mind I have a couple of newbie-type questions.

    1. In the writers’ room does someone keep track of the A,B,C story lines as the scripts
    emerge ? Is there someone who goes “ok…ok..enough A story line to move on to ‘b'” ?

    Or does the initial draft of the script come from the episodic writer’s creativity and sense of character – and then the timing and rhythms of the A,B,C, story arcs are applied in subsequent drafts ?

    If the latter – then that must be a nasty process of re-writing ? Is it the same writer who does the re-write ? Or do show runners find it more efficient to have a second writer come in and apply the program template to the initial script ?

    Also…Jill — if you don’t mind answering this for me too…what about BUDGET ? Do the producers hover over the emerging script like malevolent spirits saying “we can’t afford this…we can’t afford that” – a HELICOPTER ?? Are you out of your f***ing mind
    etc etc.

    finally – do fiction writers USE commercial breaks as turning points in story arcs and show beats ?

    I write quite a lot of non-fiction stuff and one of the first things I do is to put a large whiteboard up on the wall and create a program template detailing how long each block is and roughly where the commercials come on the clock. Most nets I deal with HATE it when a show goes to commercial on the bottom of the clock. They’d rather have that break at 20 after.

    I assume a similar logic must apply for fiction writer’s too ??


    by the way I’m getting flamed a bit on my little Book of Don blog, so I must be doing something right. 🙂

  2. admin

    Wow. That’s quite a lot of question.
    Here’s how it’s worked in my experience:
    We start by breaking the story. I’ve done it on my own and in story rooms with other writers.
    We break the story lines separately starting with the A. If it’s a show we’ve been working on a while, we know exactly how many beats we need per act. I almost always start with the act breaks. When I know what they’ll be and what the starting point in the story is, then I can fill in what comes between.
    Then we move to breaking the B which will generally be shorter — fewer beats per act. Most of the shows I’ve worked on we’ve used the A story for the act breaks so the B will follow a slightly different arc with high points coming a little sooner in the act.
    When the beats are working, we go to outline, where we marry the A- and B-stories and flesh them out. By outline, I’ll be thinking in scene terms. I’ll see the shape of the scene (where we get in, where we get out, what the emotional arcs for the characters are) as well as which characters are there and where the scene is set.
    If it’s a series you know — as in the case of pretty much any script you write from within the confines of a story department — you are already writing to budget and other production constraints. You know how many guests you can have, how many locations, etc. If you are planning on blowing up car or throwing a band concert on a rooftop or need a marching band, you’ll probably have dropped by the line producer’s office and given him a heads up and he’s let you know what the production can afford.
    The outline will go through a round of approvals and only then do we go to first draft. We’ll know how many pages our production team can shoot in the allotted time and we’ll write that many.
    Before the script gets to prep, it will have gone through several more rounds of notes and drafts.
    That’s just to get us to prep. Then there will be more changes based on casting, location and other production matters.
    My cold blooded analysis of structure is hard won. I worked on a series in which we shot 90 half hours in less than a year. I outlined five episodes a week — in addition to my other story editing duties. I got a lot of practice with laying out story beats.

  3. don young

    thanks Jill – I follow your postings carefully and find them not just a “fun read” but also useful in terms of professional skills development. As another long Winnipeg winter approaches I suspect I’ll be spending more and more time staring at this small screen…reading and learning and with a bit of luck “creating” too. At the moment I’m writing two very different documentary scripts -:

    (a) “The Interrogator’s War”, a Frontline-style piece examining the way US Army Intelligence personnel extract information from suspected terrorists. It’s essentially an examination of how “torture” manifests itself in our digital age.

    (b) “Teach A Cat To Sit”. A poignant piece about loneliness and obsession which begins with a simple question -: which is smarter a dog or a cat ?

    As you can see I’m a million miles away from your world, but I love being a tourist.

    thanks for the feedback.


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