Having a main character who can’t remember anything can be an incredibly freeing and constricting prospect all at once. Rarely does a story get the opportunity to follow someone with as close to a blank slate as you can get. But without the shortcuts of a protagonist with a baseline amount of knowledge about themselves, there’s a lot of gaps left to be filled by those on the periphery of that life. When presented the choice between these two possibilities, the new HBO Max original “The Tourist” opts for a heavy dose of the latter. What seems at the outset like a chance for Jamie Dornan to do some heavy existential lifting never quite makes good on that promise. Instead, “The Tourist” eventually settles into a conventional web of TV intrigue with one convenient mind wipe at the center.
“The Tourist” starts out coy, presenting Dornan as a nameless traveler through the Australian outback. Methodically going about his journeys across stretches of empty desert, he’s soon set upon by a big rig intent on driving him off the road. Quicker than you can read the plot synopsis for “Duel,” our would-be hero flips over in a mangled hail of shatterproof glass and twisted metal. When he finally wakes up later in the hospital, he can’t remember his name or what led him there.
So begins a thorny, interlocking mess of personal histories and frustrations, one that draws in just about everyone who tries to help out This Man as he pieces together facts from scraps of paper and grainy surveillance footage from cameras at roadside outfits. He has two main helpers in this quest. Helen Chambers (Danielle Macdonald), the traffic patrol officer initially in charge of taking This Man’s statement, decides to offer a helping hand to help him get back on his feet after he’s literally back on his feet. A chance meeting and a surprise result of a trip to the diner brings him in the orbit of another potential helper Luci (Shalom Brune-Franklin).
Luci’s entrance is a jolt to the series’ dour energy, but it kickstarts a new wave of action-thriller hangups that “The Tourist” ultimately never quite shakes. This Man may not remember who he is, but there are certainly others who do. One of them is Billy (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), a no-nonsense tracker with a smooth husky baritone and a snappy red velvet fedora. (Incidentally, Ólafsson is maybe the only cast member who seems to be really enjoying himself here.) Each new addition to this menacing collection of interested parties — also including a Major Crimes detective (Damon Herriman) and a few shadowy entrepreneurs — tips the scale further from a thoughtful examination of a person’s attempts at fashioning a new life to a pedestrian cat-and-mouse hunt.
“The Tourist” slowly pulls the curtain back on This Man as the character gets some answers of his own. Even in doing that, this show has a weird relationship to urgency. The writing team of Harry and Jack Williams start out this series with life-or-death stakes and then try to graft some intimate small-scale storytelling on top of it. Helen’s home life gradually curdles as the attention from her fiancé Ethan (Greg Larsen) grows less sweet with each passing interaction. She’s the prime example of one of the main assumptions of “The Tourist”: that anyone assisting This Man recover from a traumatic accident must therefore have their own requisite trauma to be in a position to help. While those parallels may work in theory, it only ends up pulling the show in plenty of directions it doesn’t have the grace to handle.
There’s admittedly some dark comedy to be found in the idea of trying to sort out your own memories and mostly finding people who want you dead. In that way Dornan is a flexible enough presence to be able to handle his own in the show’s more physical moments while also being a bit goofy. (He’s not as locked in as he is when singing to seagulls, but then again, who on Earth is?) Against the backdrop of an increasing amount of bloodshed, those tension-cutting moments never have quite enough bite to justify themselves. It’s more indicative of a simple origin story stretched thin over too much empty, arid landscape.
It’s only when the show makes its grand breakthrough in the final third that “The Tourist” gets a much needed influx of energy. Still, it’s another example of something in this show that feels like it should work in the abstract, but in practice simply feels like slapping on an extra layer without properly seeding that spirit throughout. It doesn’t help that what ultimately boils down to a sentence-long explanation of the root of This Man’s troubles is laden with a bevy of unnecessary detail that adds little to the ultimate payoff. This Man may be wrestling with whether or not he’s a good person, but it’s drowned out by a host of distractions in service of tidying up every last possible dangling thread.
“The Tourist” is so committed to explaining each last puzzle piece that it seems incompatible with what’s compelling about this premise. This is a show that wants points for delving into the ambiguity of human memory, all while laying out the circumstances of This Man’s pre-accident life and leaving precious little to the imagination. When the people around him largely exist for a specific purpose, it’s hard to keep caring about them once they’ve fulfilled that role (if they’re even alive once it’s done). Any unconventional way that “The Tourist” lays out its grand design is more in service of a show built around withholding information rather than being a way to better understand the man fighting for his life in the middle of it.
“The Tourist” is now available to stream on HBO Max.