Friday, September 21, 2018

TV REVIEW: NBC's 'Manifest'

NBC will launch its new original drama series Manifest on Monday, September 24 at 10/9c. following the season premiere of The Voice. The drama stars Melissa Roxburgh, Josh Dallas, Athena Karkanis, J.R. Ramirez, Jack Messina, Luna Blaise and Parveen Kaur.

Read on for my thoughts on the new mystery drama after screening its first episode.

Ever since 2004, the broadcast networks have been trying to replicate the success of Lost. That show was so groundbreaking. It represented a potential new form of storytelling that could grip millions of viewers. And yet, no show has really been able to recapture the spark that was so ingenious with that show. Every single year sees at least one of these Lost clones debuting on one of the networks. It was only a few months ago when ABC launched The Crossing to middling reviews and low ratings. And now, it's NBC's turn to try to achieve liftoff. Somehow these networks still haven't learned the most valuable component to Lost that made it such a success. It wasn't the mystery of the mythology. It wasn't the location. It was the characters. They had a diversity of perspectives while always remaining grounded despite the fantastical twists and turns of the narrative. These copycat shows have put too much emphasis on the premise in the hopes of hooking the viewer in. The priority should be with the characters to make sure that there is a reason to stay watching week after week. The moment of excitement is still strong and visceral when it comes to the grand moment of mystery. But that moment is also incredibly fleeting. It doesn't take long to set up the premises for these supernatural mystery shows. Nor does it take long for the audience to realize that there just isn't any substance underneath the surface. That's essentially what's going on with Manifest as well. After seeing so many of these shows, it just becomes what to expect from this format because it seems unlikely that anyone can do this genre as well as Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse did.

NBC has already released the first nine minutes of the premiere for Manifest as well. That's potentially a smart decision because it is already establishing interest in the show. That opening sequence really does establish what is going on in this new series. It's the most exciting part of the premiere as well. A group of strangers are in an airport in Jamaica. They are all returning to New York and one plane is overcrowded. As airlines do on occasion, they offer free vouchers to whomever will volunteer to take a later flight. As such, a group of people come forward for a variety of reasons. Of course, none of those reasons really matter anyway. One person just wants to get away from her parents for a couple of hours. Another wants to save money so that it can be put to flying to the Mayo Clinic to get more testing for a sick child. Of course, the show just breezes past the idea that this Jamaican airline probably doesn't offer flights from New York to the Midwest. It's just important that a bunch of random people volunteer for this second flight. In the air, they experience a shocking and precarious moment of turbulence. When they intend on making their descent, they are redirected to a neighboring airport and greeted by FBI on the ground. The passengers get off confused and annoyed only to be informed by the agent in charge that five years have gone by since they took off. They have been missing and presumed dead for all of that time. That means the subsequent series focuses on what happened up in the sky that could explain why they disappeared and didn't age a single day as well as the individuals trying to pick up the pieces of their lives after seeing everyone having moved on from them.

Of course, those two functions that the show is going for stand a little opposed to one another. It's hard to get the sense of how much the audience should be invested in getting answers about what happened to this plane. There is a consistent story where the government is analyzing the plane and all of the luggage that was onboard. They question the passengers to see what happened to them. They are looking for logical answers that just aren't there. But the show doesn't have a whole lot of interest in this aspect of the story either. It would rather explore the aftermath for the passengers onboard and how they are coping with this massive change to their lives. Their families have grown up without them. They are expecting things to be exactly the same. Instead, there are new difficulties and opportunities afforded to each of them. It's just so frustrating to watch because none of the characters really stand out in a memorable way. All of this is framed through a pair of siblings - Ben (Josh Dallas) and Michaela Stone (Melissa Roxburgh). They were on a family vacation to distract from Ben's son having terminal cancer. Meanwhile, Michaela has some kind of unknown incident in her past that led to her being suspended to desk duty as a police officer. They return to find that parents have died and fiancés have moved on. But they also learn that there is a new experimental trial that may actually save Ben's son. And so, it is all played as this miraculous thing being orchestrated by the universe. The world wants these people to survive and thrive for a reason. It just meant their families had to suffer for years. It's just really lame melodrama that doesn't have any genuine stakes to it.

Plus, the show continues to amplify the mythology of it all by something psychologically changing the passengers as well. After they return to Earth, they are plagued by voices in their heads telling them to do things. It all seems perfectly aspirational. The voices are helping these people be heroes. They just suddenly know when tragic things are about to occur. As such, they can save lives. They are adjusting to this new world of 2018. But they are making a profound difference as well. However, the show only commits to the idea of spirituality being the explanation for all of this. It's suggesting that Christianity is the defining aspect of the story because there are numbers that continue to appear throughout Ben and Michaela's lives upon their return to the city. It's more than purely coincidental. It's clear that something is guiding them along with a purpose. It's just a mystery with a lack of explanation at the moment. If that really is the angle the show is looking to explore, then it has to commit to it completely. Instead, it is only a tepid approach to religion so as not to offend anyone watching. It's the wrong way to tell this story. Couple that with the boredom that comes from the main characters and this is a mystery that really isn't worth getting invested in at all. It's just more of the formulaic and misguided understanding of what made Lost a success. As such, Manifest seems destined to be added onto the pile of shows that tried something new but just didn't have the strength of its convictions to really stand out in broadcast television.