“Traveler” combines several old wines in an intriguing new bottle — a buddy-style dollop of “The Fugitive,” a little “North by Northwest,” garnished with a tense post-9/11 spin. Wisely previewing the show behind “Grey’s Anatomy,” ABC is doubtless hoping the series will entice enough viewers during a summer trial to justify a serialized return — a roll of the dice, to be sure, but at least with one of the better hours that the Alphabet net has unleashed in an otherwise-mediocre development season.
The key disclaimer is that beyond the pilot hatched by director David Nutter and writer David DiGilio, “Traveler” becomes, in episodic form, another intricate game of cat and mouse, and as “24’s” collapse this season testifies, those aren’t always easy to maintain.
Still, the premiere plays like a solid thriller, as three grad students embark on what looks to be a fun-loving road trip. Before exiting New York, however, law student Jay (Matthew Bomer) and Tyler (Logan Marshall-Green) — son of the super-rich Carlton Fog (William Sadler) — engage in a silly prank, racing through an art museum on rollerblades. Once outside, they receive a phone call from their pal Will (Aaron Stanford), who mysteriously apologizes — right before the massive building erupts in a staggering blast.
Will has not only gone AWOL, he may have served up video to the authorities framing his friends. Moreover, the FBI’s investigation finds that there is no “Will Traveler,” leaving him as the only link to potentially exonerate Jay and Tyler as the web cast by the feds slowly tightens.
As constructed, “Traveler” channels the old Hitchcockian standby of normal-guy-thrust-into-fabulous-plot scenario, with the central duo exhibiting realistic levels of fear, desperation and resourcefulness. That they potentially have access to Fog’s fortune also provides a shrewd wrinkle in terms of helping elude the cops, but sustaining the hairpin turns with two grad students behind the wheel — even with at least one mysterious benefactor — will demand a deft touch beyond episode three.
Bomer and Marshall-Green are nevertheless nicely matched as the reluctant fugitives, and the teasing out of Traveler’s murky past (initially in a shades-of-“Lost” flashback) offers one fertile narrative to explore. A less promising tidbit hints at a vast conspiracy, which, given the last few seasons of “24” and “Prison Break” — as well as the since-departed “Vanished” and “Kidnapped” — risks descending into more “X-Files”-type “Trust no one” paranoia.
“People in very high places knew that something was going to happen today,” Tyler pants at one point.
Certain people in high places also would like to see this series survive past the summer, but it’s going to require a lot of people in low places — and as always, a blend of ingenuity and luck — to make that happen.