What is Lost, except generic and forgettable?
That essentially describes Manifest, the new NBC drama that rips off certain elements of J.J. Abram and Damon Lindelof’s influential sci-fi series in order to tell a story about people simultaneously robbed of precious years while also getting a second chance at life.
The pilot, which airs Monday night and is the only episode NBC made available to critics in advance, doesn’t open with a crash, but it does begins with a strange occurrence aboard Montego Air Flight 828, headed from Montego Bay, Jamaica, to New York. In midflight, a flash of lightning followed by extreme turbulence and a steep dive causes a panic among the passengers. But ultimately, the aircraft rights itself and lands safely in the Hudson Valley town of Newburgh. For those onboard, that seems like the end of the story, except that when they disembark, officials on the ground inform them that even though Flight 828 departed on April 7, 2013, it’s now November 4, 2018. “You’ve all been missing or presumed dead,” one government representative tells them, “for five-and-a-half years.” Da-naaaaaaa!
This isn’t a duplication of what happens in the Lost pilot so much as a semi-recycling of the season-four story line when — spoiler alert, I guess, but come on, Lost ended in 2010 — six of the core characters, dubbed the Oceanic Six, returned to society after having been missing for 108 days. There are other echoes of Lost, too, including hints that the passengers on the flight are interconnected, strange psychic phenomena possibly tied to that bout of turbulence, and a tendency to drop Easter egg references to the number 828 into certain scenes. Honestly, I was surprised that a Hurley look-alike didn’t suddenly stroll into the frame, Alfred Hitchcock–like, while walking a dog that resembles Vincent.
This isn’t entirely a carbon copy, though. While Lost was an ensemble drama, Manifest, at least in its first hour, doesn’t seem to be casting quite as wide of a character net. Its main focus is on the Stone family, specifically Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh), a former cop who was contemplating marrying her boyfriend Jared (J.R. Ramirez) before her family took that trip to Jamaica, and Michaela’s brother Ben (Josh Dallas of Once Upon a Time), whose son Cal (Jack Messina) has leukemia. Michaela, Ben, and Cal end up on Flight 828 after their original flight is overbooked, but the rest of their family — their parents (Geraldine Leer and Malachy Cleary), Ben’s wife Grace (Athena Karkanis), and Cal’s twin sister Olive (Luna Blaise) — take that previously booked flight. When Michaela, Ben, and Cal finally return after a half-decade absence, they have to contend with all that has changed while they were gone without their knowledge — both the bad (Michaela’s and Ben’s mother has died; Jared has moved on) and the good (leukemia treatments have advanced significantly, improving Cal’s odds).
All of the information I just shared with you is imparted in the first ten minutes of the pilot, which points to one of the key problems with Manifest: Everything is way too rushed. The idea that all of these people have been essentially hanging in midair since 2013 is an intriguing one, but the show — created by Jeff Rake, whose credits include Miss Match and The Mysteries of Laura, and executive produced by Robert Zemeckis — doesn’t let that sense of mystery breathe. It suffers from a case network TV-itis: a need to blast from one plot point to the next without devoting too much time to establishing atmosphere or deeply studying its characters.
Admittedly, one episode isn’t much to go on, but so far, Manifest also has little interest in the wider world or culture. Imagine boarding a plane while Barack Obama was still in office, then getting off of it and finding out, oh, it’s five years later and by the way, Donald Trump is president. Obviously you would be reeling on a variety of fronts, but that, along with other cultural changes — the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage? Prince died? — would be a real mind-blower. There’s never a sense that any character’s mind is truly blown by what’s happening in Manifest.
At least in the pilot, Michaela — who also starts hearing her own voice in her head, providing guidance that helps avert unforeseen catastrophes — is the primary focus. But what she’s dealing with is of less interest than the story line that involves Ben’s family and their attempt to help Cal, a process that leads their paths to cross with Saanvi Bahl (Parveen Kaur), a medical researcher whose work on cell generation is what generated Cal’s new treatment. (Stop me if you’ve already figured this out, but she also happened to be on Flight 828.) The first episode raises issues about ethics in medical treatment that are somewhat intriguing. It also hints at the awkward reality that Olive has proceeded straight into adolescence while her twin brother remains the same age. It’s hard enough for a twin to see his counterpart as an elder, but it’s especially hard when he’s battling an illness. If Manifest attempts to explore that relationship and other real-life issues in a meaningful way through the prism of its plane-crash mystery, it could improve in future episodes.
Based on the pilot, though, I’m not confident that it can. The execution doesn’t seem to be there. The problem with Manifest isn’t that it’s trying too blatantly hard to be a pseudo-Lost reboot. It’s that even after that turbulence hits, it doesn’t capture how it feels for these characters’ worlds to be shaken.