Why Journeyman Was a Much Better Show than Alcatraz

One thought kept popping into my head as I watched last night's Alcatraz — God, I miss Journeyman. The two shows have a lot in common: time travel, a totally inaccurate portrayal of San Francisco, a case of the week... plus they both got off to a slow start. But the difference was, Journeyman had characters I cared about, along with real warmth and emotion. I just don't get those things from Alcatraz.

Spoilers ahead...

It's worth checking out Journeyman's only season, if you haven't seen it yet. Like Alcatraz, it aired on Monday nights, and it was about a guy named Dan Vasser (Kevin McKidd) who occasionally travels back in time two or three decades. He usually has to help someone in the past, and then he's returned to the present — but over the course of the season, the pitfalls of time travel got dealt with a fair bit. The show also worked in a kind of love triangle, as Dan Vasser tries to hold onto his wife while discovering his supposedly dead ex-girlfriend is alive... and also a time traveler.


Obviously, Journeyman was able to have a greater variety of stories than Alcatraz, because every week Dan Vasser traveled to a different point in the past, and helped people with different problems. But the central focus — someone from the present grappling with mysteries and unfinished business from the past — was basically the same. And like Alcatraz, Journeyman was often at its best when it was depicting the strangeness of the twentieth century — the culture shock of visiting the world of just a few generations ago.

The thing Journeyman had that Alcatraz mostly doesn't? A willingness to punch you in the gut occasionally. Like in the season (series) finale, when Dan Vasser meets a fellow time traveler who has irrevocably ruined his own life, and warns that Dan will probably wind up doing the same thing. This was a show that had real emotion, and real relationships, which it spent time deepening in between all the "cases of the week."

I bring this up, partly because I'm not sure what the central relationships on Alcatraz are. A couple weeks ago, I would have said the relationship between Rebecca Madsen and her adoptive father/great-uncle Ray was a central feature of the show — but we haven't even seen Ray in a couple of weeks now. The relationships we do mostly see on the show are about as superficial as you can get — Emerson Hauser snarls at Rebecca and Diego, Rebecca and Diego share a smile occasionally. And Diego flirts with cute morgue girl for a brief scene. There's not a lot to hang your hat on with these people.


I may be a bit unfair here — Journeyman was much more of a soap opera than Alcatraz, which aims to fit squarely within the CBS "procedural" mold of shows like CSI and NCIS and so on. But the truth is, I just don't care about any of the characters on Alcatraz, nor do I care about the slow burn of the show's mysteries — it would take a lot to get me interested in any long term mystery on television these days, and Alcatraz is providing the minimum possible.

As the AV Club's Ryan McGee eloquently notes, in a must-read essay about the perils of serialized television:

Then there are shows that adhere to the USA network's model of modern-day television "mythology." These portray themselves as having a larger mystery at play, but really are procedurals covered in breadcrumbs. Shows like Burn Notice popularized this model, which soon spread to other USA shows and to other networks as well. The model: Any particular episode will have roughly 90 percent self-contained story... But for some reason, these shows also feel the need to have a larger, ongoing story that serves as the spine for a season. Whether it's Michael Westen seeking out those who burned him in Miami, Nick Burkhardt discovering his past on Grimm, or Rebecca Madsen investigating the reappearance of criminals on Alcatraz, these shows feature long-running arcs that usually harm, not help, their sturdy-if-bland lather/rinse/repeat episode structure. Rather than having the two dovetail, they often work against each other, producing uncomfortable friction as both sides seek to establish the same space.


So yeah... Alcatraz isn't really working as a mystery show, partly because the "long-term mystery" format is pretty worn out in any case. And it's not really clicking that well as a formulaic "case of the week" show either, at least not for me. Although, just like with Journeyman, the most interesting part is usually seeing the past brought to life, through the lens of the present.

With that, let's run through this week's episode, "Johnny McKee." It was written by Toni Graphia, a veteran of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles who managed to produce one outstandingly great episode of The Cape. Sadly, this wasn't up to that standard. Here's our Alcatraz-o-meter:


This week's time-traveling rapscallion: Johnny McKee, a former chemistry teacher turned poisoner, who uses everything from cyanide to nightshade to World War I-era poison gas to kill people. He killed 70 people back in 1958, and now he's on a new murder spree, focusing on men (although not exclusively, as his death toll ramps up.) He loves Jules Verne and some (but not all) of his crimes have a vaguely Vernean theme — perhaps he's seeking vengeance on the world for the existence of Journey 2: The Mysterious Island?

What emotional unfinished business does our con-of-the-week grapple with? He hates bullies — and by the end of the episode, we find out why. The prettiest girl in his high school, Ginny, took him out on a date, where she told him he was smarter than the other boys. But (as we find out at the end) she then took him to the roof of the gym, kissed him, and got his clothes off — whereupon the lights came up and the football team threw sparklers at him, destroying his testicles in the process. Afterwards, McKee took revenge, ruining her face with acid. (In the episode's one clever reversal, since we spend most of the episode believing that the bullies ruined her face, and he was taking revenge on her behalf. That was actually a genuinely clever reveal, for which the episode deserves a ton of credit.)


Ever since then, McKee hates bullies, as he shows when the crime boss of Alcatraz, Cullen, tries to bully him into killing the prison librarian for selling shivs that compete with Cullen's own stock. McKee instead kills Cullen during a screening of Mamie Van Doren's Born Reckless — in a twist that probably everybody saw coming. In any case, Dr. Sangupta decides, once McKee has owned up to his traumatic memory, that she can help him.


What unethical things do the "good guys" do to keep the Alcatraz thing a secret? They delete a "viral video" of one of Johnny McKee's poisonings, at a nightclub. Later, they cover up a poisoning on a BART train (is there some legal reason it couldn't be called BART?) with a cover story about a gas leak. And presumably their lack of information-sharing means that nobody else is on the scene to rescue the dozens of potential poisoning casualties. (Speaking of which, the final sequence of the episode brings a whole new meaning to the term "slow poison." How long are the people trapped in the train slowly getting gassed before Hauser and Madsen arrive on the scene?)

Hurley's cute geeky dude moment of the week: He plays video games and talks about how he's operating on the world. He somehow enhances a cameraphone video on Youtube to ultra-HD resolution so McKee's face shows up — although maybe that's Dr. Sangupta's built-in software? He flirts with morgue girl and is grossed out by her dismembered corpse, saying "Don't say enchilada." He knows about Jules Verne and chemistry and stuff.


Tough-but-evil Emerson Hauser moment of the week: Dr. Beauregard wants Hauser to read to Dr. Sangupta, and he refuses, saying to call him if any "tangible" options come up. Later — in a twist that should surprise nobody — he changes his mind and does indeed read to her, discovering the book is not a Harold Robbins potboiler, but Ovid's Metamorphoses instead. Oh, also he tells Jack Sylvane that nothing has changed — he's still in prison, like he was 50 years ago. And Hauser turns out to speak really really bad Cantonese, causing a guy to tell him his Qi is jacked up.


What do we learn about Rebecca's grand-daddy issues? She asks Jack Sylvane about grandpa, but doesn't learn much. She does hear about the blood drawing and Dr. Beauregard, though. And the hole beneath the hole. She's almost up to speed.

The week's mystery fodder: We hear once again about a lot of stuff we already knew — but meanwhile, Jack Sylvane says he hasn't dreamt since he came back, which could be a thing. Oh, and why does Dr. Beauregard think that traumatic memory therapy would wake someone from a coma? And how do the inmates all know about cellphones, but not the internet? Also, how does Broadway go all the way out into the Richmond District in this universe, and why is such a choice parcel of land in the Richmond still sitting vacant? Oh, and when did Li Po get such a nice dance floor?


How sadistic are the flashback scenes, on a scale of Club Fed to Gitmo? The Alcatraz staff are downright gentle this time around — the warden has apparently decided that Dr. Sangupta's talking cure is the way to go, and the only penalty for non-cooperation is listening to the warden say "Ding" a lot. Meanwhile, we're told that Cullen is a ruthless crime boss inside the prison, but we don't really get to see him in action. Oh, and you're not allowed to stare at Mamie Van Doren's luscious body until you've heard the warden lecturing you about the difference between defecating and going blind.

This week's random moment of creepiness: Maybe just pretending that Ovid is actually Harold Robbins? That was kind of creepy, in a weird sort of way. Also, Johnny McKee watching people keel over at the dance club, and later watching the bodies in the swimming pool, was kind of unsettling.


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