TV Reviews'Journeyman,' 'Chuck' and 'Bionic Woman'
By Tim Goodman San Francisco Chronicle
TV critic Monday, September 24, 2007
For proof of how important the dark horse hit "Heroes" was to an otherwise moribund NBC, look no further than its three most hyped freshman series: "Journeyman," "Chuck" and "Bionic Woman."
Sci fi anyone?
While it's true that the viewing public in recent seasons has proven more open to alternative genres - mixing sci fi with a mystery, or some kind of paranormal element with a standard drama - this trifecta of new series on NBC proves that no good idea can go uncopied in Hollywood.
Of course, for the ultimate example of that, "Heroes" has already spun off from itself with "Heroes: Origins," which will help cover up for some reruns of the mothership and even add a new character to the hit enterprise.
Though it's hard to fault NBC executives for doing what their predecessors have done pretty much since TV was invented - give the people more of what they allegedly want - it's doubtful that all three of these high-profile series will survive the season.
Conventional wisdom says that "Bionic Woman" will win out, mostly because it has a familiar premise (though most people in the target demo never saw the original from the 1970s, which itself was spun off from "The Six Million Dollar Man"). But as glossy and enticing as "Bionic Woman" may seem, there's big trouble in the pilot.
Funny thing about those pilots - as anyone keen on "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" or "The Nine" from last season can attest - they are not entirely representative of what you'll see in the future. (For the aforementioned shows, the pilots were the zenith of otherwise disappointing seasons.)
A second look at the two other NBC series changes the game, too. "Journeyman," about a time-traveling reporter who works in San Francisco, had a spotty pilot mostly because it was unclear how and why the events were happening. "Chuck," on the other hand, was managing to generate a faint amount of buzz for its mixture of comedy, sci fi and action-adventure, despite a charming but underwhelming pilot.
Unfortunately for "Chuck," the second episode is dismal, sucking all the air out of whatever hopes you might have had for that one. "Journeyman," however, benefits greatly from a clearer set of rules for its hero.
So which series will fare the best? While neither fully meets critical expectations, the audience always decides. And "Journeyman" may have the best slot. The series follows "Heroes," and though aggressively entertaining dramas tend to suck the will out of viewers to keep watching for an additional hour, it's hard to beat having a hit series drive its viewers in your direction.
"Chuck," kicking off tonight at 8, will have stiffer competition as the season rolls out, including "Dancing With the Stars" and two comedy blocks on CBS and the CW that provide more entertainment value.
On Wednesdays, "Bionic Woman" has to go against a proven hit in "Criminal Minds" plus the arrival of the "Grey's Anatomy" spin-off, "Private Practice." Unless the writers address the main problem in "Bionic" - more on that shortly - then it's a flaw that will ultimately doom the series.
But let's start with "Journeyman," since the exterior shots were filmed in San Francisco and, of the three, it may be around longer. From Emmy-winning producer and writer Kevin Falls ("The West Wing," "Sports Night"), "Journeyman" stars Kevin McKidd ("Rome") as Dan Vasser, a San Francisco journalist who, quite by accident and without operating instructions, starts time traveling. Though he doesn't understand the hows and whys of it, he begins to figure out that his presence is meant to help someone he meets in those moments. It's not always who he thinks. But by interceding somehow in their lives, he's able to create change (mostly for the positive).
Unfortunately, his erratic behavior has his editor believing he needs to find a 12-step program, and his wife, Katie (Gretchen Egolf), doesn't know what to think. That's part of the problem, however. She's not curious enough - more annoyed that he's missing for stretches than intrigued by the idea of time travel. While this works in the pilot because Lord knows why he's suddenly gone strange (hiding an affair? Suffering from mental illness?), after his story checks out and the second episode begins, she's not nearly as curious as you might imagine.
On the other hand, the series steps up a notch, revealing an innate sense of humor (cell phone jokes, references to the changing times, styles, etc.). It also allows McKidd to shine as Mr. Fix-It, even though he never wanted the task. Some of the subtext needs more episodes to provide breathing room. For example, his fiancee, Livia (Moon Bloodgood), who died years ago, is popping up in his time traveling (and not always in context). And there's the little issue of his wife having dated his brother Jack (Reed Diamond), a police officer. The four of them hung out quite a bit back in the day, before Livia died and Dan stole Katie from Jack.
While that might provide romantic fodder for future episodes, the time traveling and problem solving is the real core of "Journeyman," and if you can overlook some distressing questions about how he does it without getting caught (or divorced or institutionalized), this is a series that may overcome its own contrivances to really succeed.
"Chuck" is more problematic. What it really wants to sell is geeky wish-fulfillment fantasy to the "Heroes" crowd by way of Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi), who works at the Buy More electronics store as part of their Nerd Herd (you're meant to think Best Buy and Geek Squad).
Chuck's old college friend Bryce (Matthew Bomer) knew too much in the CIA and, for some reason, was taken out by a member of the NSA named Casey (Adam Baldwin). But before he dies, Bryce sends an e-mail to Chuck that has all the spy secrets of the United States embedded in it - and in a twist that needs a whole lot more explaining, this information somehow gets embedded in Chuck's brain, thus making him valuable property to other people in the government, like CIA femme fatale Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), and a target for assassins.
"Chuck" plays the geek-spy thing for laughs and thrills, but despite the Zach Braff-like appeal of Levi (and the comic chops of Joshua Gomez as his buddy Morgan), "Chuck" has deathly serious-tone issues. Not only does government agents killing each other seem unlikely, it also plays as amateur action hour (did they mean it to seem like a spoof?). Despite Strahovski's loveliness, "Chuck" is best when Levi is onscreen, playing a goof. When anyone else (outside of Gomez) has a line or scene, it feels like "The A-Team."
That's not a good thing, even if you like retro.
But NBC is betting that "Bionic Woman" is. This modern remake - by David Eick, who did an unbelievably great job "reimagining" another old sci-fi clunker, "Battlestar Galactica" - wants to be a lot darker than the campy original.
The "Bionic Woman" - also named Jaime Sommers (played by Michelle Ryan from the British series "EastEnders") - is rebuilt after a bloody car accident by a super-secret group that wants to enlist her in the forces of good. The trouble lies in the casting and the concept. Ryan seems too inert, not nearly aggressive enough for the role. This becomes clear when she faces off with "Battlestar Galactica" star Katee Sackhoff, who plays the first rebuilt Bionic Woman - gone bad. Not only is Sackhoff infinitely more likable as an antiheroine, she pops off the screen while Ryan doesn't.
They got the wrong bionic woman. Either that or they need to let the bad bionic woman get a whole lot more screen time. When the two do battle in the pilot, you can't help but think, "Why am I rooting for the bad girl?"http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/articl.../DDEJSCOKC.DTL