Should You Consider Manifest Your Destiny?
Ever since its stunning debut nearly fifteen years ago, network television has constantly been trying to match the perfect storm that was ABC’s Lost. I’ve written an entire episode guide regarding the phenomena over the years that I have little new to say about that series. What I can say is that over a similar period of time, I have watched the networks try, usually futilely, to match the lightning in a bottle that was that extraordinary series. Such a thing might be possible on the cable or streaming services that now dominate, but even that’s unlikely given that one needed a network to get so much of the brilliance of that series to work the way it did.
NBC seems to be trying to match a similar tone in its new series Manifest. Hell, it even starts out with an incident on an airplane, Flight 828. This time, though, it takes it from an admittedly different perspective. Michaela Stone (Melissa Roxburgh) and her brother Ben (Josh Dallas) are taking a earlier flight from a vacation in Jamaica in May of 2013. Michaela is a New York cop recovering from a drunk driving accident and a troubled relationship with her boyfriend. Ben has a happy marriage but his son Cal has leukemia and his fate look likes its terminal. While they are in the air, they briefly hit turbulence for a couple of minutes. Then when the pilot gets them to New York, things start to go weird. When they do land, they find out its November of 2018, and the plane has been reported missing for five and a half years. None of the passengers have aged a day.
This is right out of the Lost playbook, though admittedly its dealing more with the Seasons 4 and 5 bit, when the Oceanic 6 returned to civilization. Where Manifest works the best is when it tries to look at the passengers in the sense of real world consequences. When the series focuses on Michaela and Ben, it sings. Michaela returns home to find that her boyfriend has married her best friend, her apartment is gone, and that her mother, who she saw just a few days ago in her timeline, has died. Ben has more of a life to return to — even though his wife and daughter are five years older, they still love him. But even there, there are problems — it’s clear his wife has had an affair, his eleven year old daughter is now a teenager, and he’s trying to figure whether his son can still recover. There’s also a sense that the rest of the world is not necessarily thrilled that they’ve come back — the NTSB doesn’t accept their explanations, and the rest of the government is inclined to consider them more of a security threat than a joyous reason for return.
This is actually more interesting then the sci-fi bit that we know has to be attached. Part of the reason Lost inspired such devotion in the early seasons was because we never got a clear picture of what genre the series was. It didn’t plant its flag in the sci-fi realm until Season 4, and by then, it had gotten us so invested in the characters that even non-sci-fi freaks didn’t care. But Manifest shows its cards very early. Both Michaela and Ben start hearing things — voices, music, suggestions that seem to be giving them the gift of foresight. Nor is this something limited strictly to them — at least eighteen other passengers, including the Pilot, all seemed to be drawn to the airport just moments before the plane mysteriously explodes. Now, I realize that by necessity Manifest has to be a series about unexplained events. But Jeff Rake and Matthew Fernandez are not J.J. Abrams, Carlton Cuse, and Damon Lindelof. They seem less interested in character development than the mystery, and the only characters that seem to matter are the Stone family. While Roxburgh and Dallas do their level best, they don’t seem nearly as well drawn as anyone of the fourteen character we met in the first few episodes of Lost.
Now, I’m not saying this series won’t end up working. The early numbers has averaged ten million viewers, and the notices have been positive. But Manifest has yet to clearly demonstrate that it can be anything other than a Lost knock-off. I’m not going to say its completely uninteresting, and to be honest, Lost didn’t hit cruising altitude until episode 4, so it might yet get there. But NBC has had these kind of quasi-successes before. I’m just not sure this is a series that deserves it.
My score: 2.75 stars.