Review: Travelers

It's an over-worn cliche by now to take something that someone loved a long time ago and reinvent it "but dark and gritty." I'd simply become too exhausted to list out examples here, but chances are better than good that I don’t have to do that because it has been such a prolific phenomenon in our culture that you know exactly what I’m talking about. For the most part, those dark reboots fail miserably because they never seem to capture what actually makes something "dark and gritty."

But every now and then, one of those reboots shows up and it’s actually...good. And challenging. And it asks interesting questions. One of those reboots is Netflix's series Travelers.

While not a direct remake, Travelers borrows heavily from the conceit of Quantum Leap—people from the future are sent back in time to inhabit the bodies of people in our time, so that they can change the future for the better. The difference here is that instead of the aforementioned Travelers jumping from body to body uncontrollably, they are sent back to specific bodies, each with a specific purpose. To say too much more about it would be to spoil some of the more interesting parts of the show, but needless to say, the concept of inhabiting someone else's body is one of the things that makes this show so damned interesting.

It's the reason why Quantum Leap was so popular and why movies like Freaky Friday exist. What would it be like to live someone else's life? How would you act differently? What would you do differently? Could you maintain the same relationships that person did, in exactly the same way? Or, in the case of these Travelers, could you keep your focus on the mission and forget the other distractions, while still maintaining your cover? Travelers does an excellent job of proving that those questions are a lot harder to answer than you might think.

If you dig deeper, however, you'll find that the show really missed an opportunity to ask an even more interesting question in a way that would've been intriguing to see them explore: what if one of the Travelers was sent back to inhabit the body of someone who claimed a different gender identity? Maybe it could be intentional or maybe it could be an accident, but that person would then encounter many of the same challenges that those in the trans community face every day. To see that played out amidst the rest of the drama and intrigue of the show, to have that equated with the other human pathos that was already written in, could've been a very compelling thing to watch. It also could've been a very strong sign to the viewers that issues like this are worth paying attention to and relating to. Then again, in the wrong hands a plot like that could also devolve into cheesy, stereotypical "HAHA! That man is wearing a bra!" types of scenes, which would be completely counter-productive. Still, I think it would've been worth giving a shot.

The other thing to talk about with Travelers is the surprising return of Eric McCormack. Many of us will always have a hard time seeing him as anything other than Will from Will and Grace and I think that's why he's struggled so hard and so long to shake that type-casting. Other members of that cast haven't been so successful (Sean Hayes comes to mind), but McCormack has really found an interesting outlet in FBI officer Grant McLaren. He's able to be no-nonsense, harsh, fierce, in-charge—all things that Will never was—while also showing some of the same charm and boyishness that he brought to Will. It's a complex portrayal of a man whose entire life and purpose get flipped around mid-stream and it's really enjoyable to watch him work through those struggles through the course of the season.

Of course, all of this sits on top of a pretty tightly written plot that will likely keep you guessing throughout. The twists and turns that it takes are genuinely unexpected, which is saying something for a time travel show. In fact, they really embrace the ridiculousness of most time travel conceits and even debate it many times over during episodes. The characters wonder if what they’re doing is actually changing things and if it is, what does that mean about them and their families and their memories? It's engaging to say the least and I'll bet you'll find your stomach tightening involuntarily at some of the more dramatic moments during the show.

Missed opportunities aside, the show is most definitely worth binge watching (as we all are wont to do with Netflix series) and they will be bringing it back from another season before too much longer. If nothing else, it’s worth checking out to prove to yourself—and to Mr. McCormack—that actors really can grow past the roles that make them famous. And who knows? Maybe one day the show will decide to explore some of those more challenging questions about gender norms and roles. After all, the future is now, right?

Jon Shutt's picture
on February 3, 2017

Just another nerdy gay guy in NYC, trying to figure out which chapters of trigonometry were pushed out of his brain so he can remember that obscure villain who appeared in old issues of X-Men or where the hidden platforms are in any number of platformers...

Pronouns: He/Him/His