If the primetime fall TV lineup is any indication, it seems the world is now ready to find room amongst its cop and forensic expert programs for shows in the science-fiction and fantasy realm. Of course, all the Star Trek fans have been ready for ages, but it’s rare to see prime-time network TV dabbling with the supernatural, time travel, bionic women, and post-apocalyptic scenarios all at once. As with any season, some shows will succeed and some will fail. Unfortunately, the choices are often made according to the cost of the show and other factors wholly unrelated to the merits of the program. Here’s hoping the viewers luck out and the worthy shows get kept this time.
Looking at two of NBC‘s exciting new offerings, Monday night’s Journeyman and Wednesday night’s Bionic Woman, there is a clear frontrunner based on the pilot episodes. In a real life throw-down between bionic woman Jamie Sommers and the time-traveling Dan Vassar, I pretty much guarantee that Jamie would triumph with ease. As for providing compelling primetime TV, though, the competition between Bionic Woman and Journeyman could turn out quite differently.
Bionic Woman is a new take on the popular 1970s show, starring British actress Michelle Ryan as Jamie Sommers. A somewhat doe-eyed bartender by night, she’s got a willful younger sister to take care of and a bioethics professor boyfriend she just might marry. Then a shocking car accident occurs, leaving Jamie with fatal injuries.
Viewers quickly learn that, unbeknownst to her, Jamie’s boyfriend Will is a member of a secret organization that specializes in advanced biotechnology. Breaking protocol, Will gets Jamie into surgery at their facility and saves her life by replacing her damaged legs, arm, ear and eye with bionic parts. His act of love conflicts dramatically with the plans of his boss, Jonas Bledsoe (Miguel Ferrer), a man determined to get a return on his expensive and risky investment in Jamie’s life. Jamie is caught in a nightmare, stuck with a scary new body she doesn’t want, and the consequences of having this newfound power.
Sharing screen time with Jamie is Sarah Corvus, a mysterious and dangerous woman played with relish by Battlestar Galactica‘s Katee Sackhoff. The perfectly violent counterpart to Jamie’s more noble heroine, she offers the series’ most promising plotline. As the first bionic woman, she is a frightening example of what this new technology is capable of–and how these experimental procedures could eventually affect Jamie.
The pilot has promise, but it’s not until about 28 minutes in that I actually started to believe that. Like many of the comic hero films that try to cram too much into a short period of time, Bionic Woman squanders the benefits of the format in its rush to get to the “good parts”. The joy of doing a story on TV has always been the amount of time devoted to the stories. Characters can be introduced and built up over time; viewers can happily spend years getting to know their heroes.
Not so with Bionic Woman. Jamie Sommers is barely introduced before she’s involved in her life-changing surgery. She goes through happiness, sadness, anger, acceptance, fear, and a sex scene, all within the first twenty minutes. It’s like watching a program on fast forward–all we get are flashes of plot and character development. The end result is something hollow, and viewers are left with very little empathy for the characters. This is a bad start for a series they’re hoping people will tune into week after week.
The other problem with Bionic Woman is its cast. Early episodes of a series can often be clunky (Star Trek: TNG‘s first episodes were dreadful), so it’s possible the actors might settle into their parts better in the future. I’m skeptical. Though attractive and fairly convincing in action scenes, Michelle Ryan thus far seems to lack the emotional range necessary to make her character worth watching. It’s particularly noticeable next to Katee Sackhoff’s portrayal–though the character Sarah is written with somewhat erratic rationale, Sackhoff still manages to gain more sympathy from her audience than the supposed heroine of Bionic Woman does.
Chris Bowers’ portrayal of Will is also a weak link. An important character, he pretty much fades into the background and viewers get little sense of him as a person. It’s one thing to be intentionally mysterious…Will just seems to be nothing at all. More promise is shown by actors Jae Kim and Molly Price, and the ever steady Ferrer.
If Ryan can improve her game, the Bionic Woman series has a chance. The showdown between her and Sackhoff’s character late in the pilot was the highlight, and their physical as well as dialogue exchanges were what gave me hope for the future of the show. If the later episodes focus on just one or two threads of plot and take the time to develop the characters, Bionic Woman could be an exciting drama to look forward to every Wednesday night.
What the pilot for Bionic Woman fails to accomplish, the Journeyman pilot does extremely well. The story of Dan Vassar is compelling from the start, jumping into the action very early on without compromising character development.
Journeyman centers around Dan, a dedicated reporter and family man. Viewers get a glimpse of his work and life and seeming domestic bliss, before he unexpectedly falls asleep and wakes up twenty years in the past. Here the mystery begins, as Dan tries to figure out if he’s dreaming, hallucinating, or has actually traveled through time.
His absences cause stress at home and work, as he misses writing deadlines and disappears for days on end. Dan’s family and friends respond with varying degrees of concern and suspicion, adding to his confusion and stress over what’s happening to him. As he flits in and out of his present reality, he interacts with the people in the past, and starts to see a thread between the seemingly random time periods he arrives in. He discovers a possible purpose to his journey, to help specific people in the past and change their future.
Journeyman also adds an extra complication to the story. In several of Dan’s trips through time, he comes in contact with his former fiancée Livia, who in his present life is long presumed dead. It’s obvious from the start that Dan has never gotten over his love for her, and this renewed interaction adds to his struggle and complicates his feelings for his current wife Katie. It also adds to the mystery, as we see Livia in places she shouldn’t concievably be.
Journeyman, like Bionic Woman, packs in a lot of information in a short amount of time. It manages a lot better, though, starting with small glimpses of things and then slowly building on them. While Bionic Woman was disjointed, Journeyman feels perfectly connected. As viewers follow Dan through each day, they learn more about him and his life. When the more poignant moments arrive, viewers are ready for them and can actually feel for the characters’ plights.
This is helped by the higher caliber of acting. Kevin McKidd, experienced with period roles in Kingdom of Heaven and the acclaimed HBO series Rome, gives Journeyman Dan Vassar a nice noble weight. He handles the tensions and arc of the character well, giving us a thoughtful, steady, resourceful hero we sympathize with and want to cheer on. Gretchen Egolf does nicely as his wife, especially in the unexpected glimpses of Katie in the past. Reed Diamond, an experienced TV and movie actor, plays the sibling rivalry part well as Dan’s policeman brother Jack.
The writing for Journeyman is excellent. Through careful dialogue and interlocking scenes, we get insight to the characters and their struggles, as well as a compelling mystery that teases and enlightens in equal measure. The test will be if it can sustain that mystery throughout the episodes. Focusing on the characters in the future journeys Dan takes, alongside his own struggles, should offer plenty of material to sustain a series.
Journeyman is definitely worth checking out. Viewers will find themselves involved with characters they want to know more about, a mystery to solve, and further journeys to look forward to. That’s just what a good pilot episode should do–leave us wanting more. Hopefully what follows will work as well as this amazing first entry.
Bionic Woman is not as strong or well-put together, but the last third of the hour gave me hope for something better. I recommend sticking with it for a few episodes, seeing how the characters progress and if the storylines become more cohesive. The actors need to work on their chemistry, and the editors need to do a better job of conveying the story without hopping around so much.
Journeyman makes a strong case for continuing with shows in the science fiction and fantasy genres. If Bionic Woman capitalizes on the action elements and the dynamic of its two female stars, it could become a powerful force on primetime TV. Watch both shows on NBC and decide for yourselves. Journeyman airs Monday nights at 10pm Eastern, 9pm Central. Bionic Woman airs Wednesday nights at 9pm Eastern, 8pm Central.