NBC's new time travel epic, Journeyman, is a show so overloaded with backstory that much of the time one spends watching the pilot is used deciphering the interactions rather than focusing on the show itself. This might be a more fruitful exercise if the romantic story arcs were not so clichéd. The show definitely has interesting elements to it, but too much of it seems focused on soap opera-type romance.
Journeyman centers around Dan Vasser (Kevin McKidd, Rome). Dan is a newspaper reporter who happens to get swept up in a huge ball of light that sends him back in time, but just a few years back. After getting his bearings (at least a little), Dan saves a man who is about to kill himself, and soon jumps back into the present. Throughout the rest of the pilot, Dan jumps to different moments in the past, continually interacting with the same man and his wife, and meets up with a few people from his own past. He quickly learns that time in the present does not stand still when he is in the past, nor does the amount of time he was in the past directly correspond with the amount that elapses in the present.
Back in the present, Dan's wife, Katie (Gretchen Egolf) becomes increasingly distraught with her husband's disappearances. It becomes abundantly clear that Dan has had some sort of problem in the past, presumably, though not definitely, alcohol addiction or another type of addiction. Additionally, his marriage to Katie has been going through a rough period which has just gotten back on track prior to Dan's disappearances. Thus, Dan skipping out for days at a time wreaks havoc in his marriage.
Making the whole thing that much more complicated is the fact that Dan keeps seeing the ex-love of his life, Livia (Moon Bloodgood) when he goes back in time. Livia, it seems, was last seen by Dan as she was getting in a cab to go to the airport years previously. Though the show does not state as much till more than halfway through, the audience quickly perceives that the plane Livia was on crashed. Dan's seeing Livia in the past causes his unresolved feelings for her to resurface, creating an odd sort of love triangle with his wife.
Or, maybe it is a love rectangle because as if that was not enough, there is also Dan's brother, Jack (Reed Diamond), who is a police detective. Jack happens to have, at one time, dated Katie when Dan was with Livia. Jack still talks to both Katie and Dan; one can only presume that enough time has passed to heal that wound, or at least allow it to scab over.
The who, how, and wherefores of this time traveling are left up in the air in the pilot, although it does seem clear that Dan has some Sam Beckett-Quantum Leap-style work to do in the past, in the case of the pilot, with the man he saved from committing suicide. Dan is actually told as much, sort of, but by whom I will not say. It should be terribly obvious early on in the show, but I will not divulge secrets anyway at this time.
It is also fairly obvious that Dan's feelings for Livia and either Katie's for Jack or Jack's for Katie will be resurfacing on a fairly regular basis as the show progresses. It is all very soap opera-esque, and without the addition of the time travel story would undoubtedly fit into the “primetime soap opera” category.
What then to make of the show?
There is certainly enough there to keep viewers returning for at least a second, and possibly third helping of the series. However, the hackneyed romantic backstory needs to take a backseat to new and different interactions at some point. What is laid out in the first episode is neither subtle nor terribly clever, yet it locks the producers in to a such a rigorously defined romantic world early on, that to see the elements play out will not be interesting to the viewer. Hopefully the producers will find a way to get past the romantic history of the characters and move the story and the people forward in interesting directions as the show progresses.