Fall TV Fun: “Chuck” and “Journeyman”

Chuck grade:  A –

Journeyman grade:  C +

Of the two new shows that bracket Heroes on NBC’s Monday lineup, Chuck is the one that dares to ask, “What if Sydney Bristow didn’t mean to become a secret agent?”  Chuck (Zachary Levi) is a computer tech at Buy More who hasn’t gotten over the time his college roommate Bryce stole his girlfriend.  Eventually Bryce graduated to stealing government intel, and emails the goodies to Chuck just before dying at the hands of Jayne from Firefly.  Somehow the intel downloads into Chuck’s brain, and suddenly Chuck is the object of a frantic government search conducted by Jayne (here named Casey) and Sarah, who’s as badass as an Erika Christensen doppelganger can be.

Journeyman is the show that dares to ask…I don’t know, “What if you couldn’t pick a decade to live in?”  Dan Vasser (Kevin McKidd) is a newspaper reporter with a checkered romantic and family history.  His wife Katie (Gretchen Egolf) used to date his brother Jack (Reed Diamond), back before Dan’s wife-to-be Livia (Moon Bloodgood) died in a plane crash.  Or did she?  One day, with no warning, Dan starts shifting through time.  Livia may have something to do with it; she may not have died in the plane crash.  Dan saves the life of a guy named Neal, then saves the lives of Neal’s wife and son—from Neal, who was going to kill them.  Meanwhile, all the time shifting makes his family think he’s on drugs, and causes some tension at home.

We may have a winner, but only one.  Thus far, Chuck manages to capture all the goofy excitement of Alias without the overbearing angst or Byzantine plotting that crippled the series from season 3 on.  There’s a winning scene where Sarah (Yvonne Strzechowski) takes out several NSA agents on a dance floor while Chuck bops happily, unaware that malevolent forces are plotting his destruction.  As with Alias, the pilot focuses on the schism between Chuck’s daily life and his secret activities.  That daily life includes Chuck’s friend Morgan (Joshua Gomez); his sole function is to remind viewers that Chuck is a nerd, so I hope he’s the series’s second casualty.  As Chuck, Levi has a genial, earnest, slightly melancholy presence that lends itself nicely to the story of someone caught by forces beyond his control.  Chuck could stand to distance itself a little more from the Alias template, but I have high hopes from this first episode.

Journeyman doesn’t fare so well.  Look, I sat through 16 Years of Alcohol through Kevin McKidd, but for god’s sake, the guy has got to start reading scripts instead of contracts.  Dan shifts from 1997 to 2007, and somehow no one in 1997 notices that he’s suddenly ten years older?  What is he, Goldie Hawn?  And in 2007, Katie and Jack stage an intervention after Dan suddenly goes AWOL, twice.  Okay, he also caused a car wreck, but they could try taking him the hospital before assuming he’s on drugs.  (There had better be some history to explain Katie and Jack’s response.)  I like that we don’t learn everything right away—how Dan and Katie ended up together, why the time shifts are happening—but even with those questions unresolved, the breakneck plot pacing overshadows McKidd’s best attempts to lend Dan some individuality.  There are several good ideas here, many of them recycled from other shows, but the creator/writer, Kevin Falls, needs to juggle the plot points more adeptly before Journeyman will be solid sci-fi.

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