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Media musings: 'Traveler' fans face 'lost' cause

(c) Madison.com

May 29, 2007



By Rob Thomas

A few days later, I'm still all a-tingle about last week's season finale of "Lost," which pretty decisively put the smackdown to all the naysayers who felt that the show had fizzled out this year. The show might require an enormous level of viewer involvement (and patience, certainly), but the emotional and dramatic payoffs, when they finally come, always exceed my wildest expectations.

But the next new season of "Lost" won't be here until February 2008, over eight months from now, and you can't spend all that time posting online about who you think is really in that casket. It's time to find another engrossing show to pass the time with this summer.

Barely giving us time to pause, ABC has already lined up another conspiracy-minded serial drama in the "Lost" vein, even taking the "Lost" time slot of 9 p.m. on Wednesdays. The first episode of "Traveler" doesn't get its official season premiere until Wednesday, but the network did air a sneak preview of the show a couple of weeks ago.

And "Traveler" does look like a pretty good show, with the potential to be an unqualified good show. But, really, is it smart to jump on board? A television viewer has to be crazy (or a glutton for punishment) to get invested in a brand-new serial drama these days. Just ask any fan of "Jericho."

Take a look back at this year's television schedule, and the carcasses of highly touted serial dramas are everywhere. "The Nine." "Day Break." "Six Degrees." "Kidnapped." "Vanished." "Smith." All got the ax well before their time, although I hear that the DVD set for "Kidnapped," which includes some unaired episodes, was able to resolve its storyline well enough.

But CBS' decision to yank "Jericho" was the one that really stung. Much like "Lost," the show looked at an enclave of people trying to adapt and rebuild their society in the face of catastrophe, in this case a series of nuclear explosions on American soil. In the fall, it was one of the most buzzed-about new shows, brimming with critical acclaim and the ratings to back it up.

Then the show took an extended break over December and January, and when it came back, the ratings had cooled off considerably. CBS, which has a remarkably adventurous slate of new shows ready for the fall, decided to kill the show and focus its marketing attention elsewhere. The decision has naturally angered "Jericho" fans, who organized with amazing speed to send petitions, e-mails and letters to the head office at CBS. They're even deluging the CBS corporate offices with pounds and pounds of nuts -- a reference to the famous one-word reply American World War II soldiers gave to a German order to surrender -- through www.nutsonline.com.

It probably won't save the show, but you never know; the campaign could shame CBS into at least giving "Jericho" a miniseries or TV movie to wrap things up. But you've got to feed bad for the fans who invested their time and mental energy into a show that by all accounts was a freshman hit, only to see it get yanked away from them.

That's why I think it's going to become harder and harder for serial dramas like "Traveler" to find an audience. It's not that there's not an audience for twisty, long-form dramas that tell an entire story over the course of a show's lifetime. It's that that audience has been burned so many times that they're wary of signing up for a new one. At this point, I can't see myself getting worked up over a new "Lost"-type show until it's at least in its second season, and then I can catch up on the first season on DVD.

That said, "Traveler" is off to a reasonably promising start. The show looks at three friends just out of graduate school and on their way to a summer-long road trip before they start their respectable adult lives in the fall. Jay Burchell (Matthew Bomer) is a working-class guy who just got his law degree, Tyler Fog (Logan Marshall-Green) is the blue-blood son of a controversial billionaire, and Will Traveler (Aaron Stanford) is a somewhat mysterious guy who came up with the idea of the road trip.

Expect something to happen on the way to the big road trip. Will goads Tyler and Jay into a prank, rollerblading through the halls of a Manhattan art museum while Will films the whole thing. Except when they're done, Will is nowhere to be found. And then a firebomb goes off in the museum.

Now the police have all this suspicious footage of two guys rollerblading through the museum right before it blows up, and Tyler and Jay are on the run. Worse, as they try to find Will, they discover that there's absolutely no record of him anywhere. Even in their personal photos taken over the last few years, Will always found a way to conceal his face.

So what we've got here, courtesy of "X-Files" veteran David Nutter, is sort of "Lost" meets "The Fugitive." The two friends go on the run, pursued by some very determined investigators (two great character actors in Steven Culp and Viola Davis), while trying to figure out who Will was, or wasn't, and why he would frame them for the museum bombing.

As I said, it looks promising. One nice touch is that the show deals with the usual "Well, why don't they just tell the cops what happened?" question by invoking the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay. When Jay sees a television pundit talking about how the suspects could be deemed enemy combatants and jailed without trial, it feels both politically relevant and dramatically satisfying.

Also, the show leaves open the question of whether Will is really a bad guy or not; he made sure the museum was evacuated before the bomb went off, and the only body found inside, burned beyond recognition, seems to be wearing Will's clothing.

So, despite my reservations that it will last, I'm willing to give "Traveler" a shot. And if ABC pulls the plug before Jay and Tyler find Will and clear their names, I'll have only one thing to say: "Nuts!"

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