Let's look at the bright side. Scandals coming out of places like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib may have set us back a few hundred years in the eyes of the world and left many Americans feeling paranoid and skittish about their government, but they've made the setups for TV shows about innocent folks on the lam a lot easier to swallow.
"Traveler," which debuts Thursday night on ABC at 10, is a post-9/11 "The Fugitive" crossed, perhaps, with "The Paper Chase." Jay Burchell (Matthew Bomer), Tyler Fog (Logan Marshall-Green) and Will Traveler (Aaron Stanford) are a fun-lovin' trio fresh out of grad school and embarking on the classic road trip, Kerouac in hand. The starting point is New York, and Will dares his two friends to Rollerblade through the "Drexler Museum of Art," whatever that is, as one last madcap prank.
Soon, of course, (cue shrieky strings) it becomes a race for their lives. After they blade on out of there, laughing and backslapping all the way, Jay and Tyler can't find Will. Worse, the Drexler blows up, they're the patsies who look like terrorists caught on the security cameras, and it looks like Will set them up.
Soon they are doing what fugitives always do — throwing things into backpacks, shouting hoarsely into cellphones and trying to lay their hands on people who will give them help and cash. Jay, a law school grad, thinks they should go to the police; Tyler, the rich kid, has all the "Are you crazy? They'll never believe us" lines.
It's all very tense and fun, underscored by sirens and ominous techno music, shot in that popular, over-caffeinated jumpiness that here at least makes sense, lighted up by the all-American good looks of Bomer and sulky rich-boyishness of Marshall-Green.
But it's also undeniably disturbing, and not because someone was trying to destroy an art museum. In plots such as these, the biggest hump is why the innocent don't just go to the authorities — in this case, there is nothing to link the guys to the bombing except the Rollerblading, and any half-decent lawyer could get around that. But the characters are quickly convinced, and convincing in their belief, that there is no justice to be had for a suspect in the bombing of a New York institution.
(A bombing which, it is important to note, caused no casualties — oh sure, a few guards are in critical condition, but all those uniformed school kids, the grandmothers and college students got out unscathed. The president's personal art collection, however, is toast. For the more cynical among us, and the "24" fans, this leaves open the possibility that this is the work of "good" terrorists working against a "bad" president.)
The idea that two handsome young men could go from being caught Rollerblading on tape to being labeled terrorists in less than half an hour is chilling in its believability. It's not the feds who convince our heroes that their only option is flight, it's the media. Jay, in trying to explain to his girlfriend why he isn't simply getting a lawyer as they watch the pundits take to the airwaves, says they're now "enemies of the state," which seems true enough.
As it turns out, the two young men have their reasons for mistrusting the system. As Jay tells his girlfriend in a monologue that may have come directly from the show's pitch meeting: "My father died because someone in the government betrayed him. It didn't make me hate the government, it made me want to fix it . I need to find out who Will Traveler really is."
Jay and Tyler have their reasons for not trusting appearances or the authorities and so, apparently, may we.
When: 10 to 11 p.m. Thursday; regular time Wednesdays, beginning May 30, 10 p.m.
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)
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