ABC’s Traveler, debuting tonight at 10 after Grey’s Anatomy, is a lot of fun, but it exposes one of television’s weaknesses as a medium, specifically in regards to the serialized dramas that are all the rage recently. When the pilot is working, it moves like a rocket, never stopping to let you think too hard about just how implausible the whole thing is. But the very fact that it arrives last in a season littered with the wrecks of other serialized shows—some better and some much, much worse than Traveler—casts a bit of a pall over it. When I first saw the pilot last summer, I thought it was one of the better ones of the young season. But when I watched it again this week, it was hard not to yawn.
Traveler tells the story of three college roommates who decide to take one last road trip before beginning lives of respectability. They plan to follow the plot of Kerouac’s On the Road as closely as possible, right down to pulling a prank in a New York City art museum. Jay (Matthew Bomer) and Tyler (Logan Marshall Green) dart on ahead on roller blades, racing through the museum on a stupid bet (and, it must be said, for the action sequence that kicks off the episode, this one is sluggishly paced, especially when compared to later sequences). Their friend Will Traveler (Aaron Stanford) stays behind to videotape their shenanigans, but when Jay and Tyler exit the museum, a phone call to Will ends cryptically as he apologizes to them. Then the museum explodes, and Jay and Tyler are blamed for the explosion.
From there, the show turns into a weird hybrid of 24 and The Fugitive. It stretches plausibility almost too often for this sort of escapist entertainment (the boys never even bother to change clothes, and they take breaks from their race to visit a girlfriend or have a long discussion about how they’re fundamentally different from each other), but it’s mostly a four-barreled race forward as the boys try to stay one step ahead of the F.B.I. (led by the excellent Viola Davis and Steven Culp) and rely on Tyler’s father (William Sadler) for which steps to take next. The duo delve into the mystery of Will Traveler, believing that he was a central figure in this strange conspiracy, and discover that they have no photos of him and that they know surprisingly little about him.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this, and director David Nutter (an X-Files veteran who’s become something of a go-to director for intense pilots, though he was also the man behind The Sopranos’ moving “Join the Club” in 2006) keeps the pace up so well that even the largest implausibilities fly by. He uses New York City locations well, making the city’s crowded streets into both a place where it’s easy to get lost and where it’s easy to be recognized by anyone. There’s really nothing to distinguish the two guys at the center of the tale (one’s responsible while the other likes to play it by ear—stop me if you’ve heard this before), but the sense the actors give that they’ve been forcibly bonded together by strange circumstances is palpable. And while everyone else in the cast is playing some variation on a well-worn type, they all do so well enough to keep you watching.
What may make you tune out is the fact that the story seems tremendously limited. It seems perhaps too complicated for a two-hour movie, but it’s hard to see how this story could go on for season after season, spinning new stories of how the guys stay one step ahead of the F.B.I. and search for Will. The Fugitive lasted for several seasons, of course, but that show was more of an anthology series, featuring Dr. Kimble taking on a new persona with every episode and interacting with new characters in each location he traveled to. That was OK because Dr. Kimble was part of a very simple conspiracy. The guys here are part of what appears to be another world-spanning conspiracy that has nothing better to do other than make innocent college students pawns in their game. And that’s where the show sort of falls apart with a season’s worth of hindsight.
All artistic media feature works that are ultimately derivative, but television features series that are often all derivative of the same source material, and which end up arriving at roughly the same time. Various television seasons have seen hordes of Friends clones, X-Files lookalikes and CSI wannabes crowd the networks over the years. Last year, the successes of 24, Prison Break and Lost led the networks to greenlight dozens of pilots about people caught in huge conspiracies beyond their control, forced to fight for their lives. A handful of those pilots were picked up, and many of them were awful (think back—if you can—to Vanished or Runaway). While some were good (indeed, both Kidnapped and The Nine featured intriguing twists on the formula), the sheer glut of serials meant that one (Heroes) survived and audiences flocked to more escapist fare like the campy Ugly Betty or the melodramatic Brothers & Sisters. Traveler, which stood out as one of the better examples of the serial action drama form when lined up next to all of the other pilots last summer, now can’t help but feel like the last kid off the bus. Having seen the way so many of those shows failed, it’s hard not to be skeptical about yet another show of that type. Maybe this one will be different, but does anyone have enough faith to stick it out?
Still, Traveler gets enough right to give the pilot a shot. Too many serials that debuted this year felt formless, like little pieces of bigger stories, but without the sort of episodic structure that TV demands. Traveler’s pilot episode has one clear-cut goal—the guys have to get out of town. They have to make some sacrifices to do that, and they have to go through the action movie paces, but because there’s always a manageable goal in front of them, it’s easier to follow the plot than it was in, say, Vanished. And the show also has weird echoes of the September 11th conspiracy theories that haunt YouTube (at one point, a character actually says that powerful people knew what was going to happen based on fluctuations in the stock market; a similar theory is proposed in the most popular 9/11 conspiracy doc Loose Change). Those theories, sketchy as they are, arose out of a need to explain why people in charge did nothing to stop an attack it seemed they knew might be coming, and Traveler echoes with the easy, comfortable answer to that question—those in charge aren’t incompetent; they’re diabolically evil and stand to profit. It’s an awfully simplistic view of the relationship between terrorism and wealth, but it feels more of a piece with our paranoid times than just about any serialized thriller that hit the airwaves last season (really, only 24 bests it in that regard).
But, ultimately, the story being told here is too limited. Even Lost, with a whole mysterious island and several centuries of pulp madness to play with, seemed to run out of story eventually and had to set an end date for itself. Traveler, more limited to the mundane aspects of the world, seems as though it was designed to play out its storyline over, say, 13 tautly-paced episodes. It’s hard to believe this could go on for season after season. Perhaps the pilot itself best expresses this. Midway through, one of the guys dashes away from federal agents on a chase through New York City, then over its rooftops. The sequence is thrillingly paced and has a few fun twists, but it ultimately finishes at a dead end, the characters relying on the global conspiracy itself to save them (for reasons we’ll presumably find out later). It’s like the show in a nutshell—a lot of fun in the moment, but ultimately trapped by its own worn-out ambitions.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.