Eight Two Eight
Okay, okay, you got me. I haven’t been to the gym in five days. But I’m going today, I swear, I just have to wait for my headphones to charge. So while I’m waiting on that, let’s dissect this new show called Manifest on NBC. Because why wouldn’t I? Anybody who knows me knows that serial dramas are one of my favorite styles of TV shows. Supernatural, Battlestar Galactica, Las Vegas and of course LOST are among my all time favorite shows. And I’ll argue the ending of LOST until I’m blue in the fucking face. THEY👏WERE👏NOT👏DEAD👏THE👏WHOLE👏TIME👏IT’S👏STATED👏EXPLICITLY👏IN👏CHRISTIAN👏SHEPHARD’S👏FINAL👏MONOLOGUE👏IN👏THE👏BACK👏OF👏THE👏CHURCH👏IN👏THE👏SERIES👏FINALE👏SERIOUSLY👏GO👏WATCH👏IT👏AGAIN👏AND👏ACTUALLY👏LISTEN👏TO👏THE👏WORDS👏HE👏SPEAKS👏BEFORE👏YOU👏OPEN👏YOUR👏BIG👏DUMB👏STUPID👏PROBABLY👏UNHYGIENIC👏MOUTH👏YOU👏UNEDUCATED👏SELF-RIGHTEOUS👏TOOL👏. Seriously…it’s RIGHT there in the exchange Christian has with Jack. It’s when people hold onto their preconceived notions and can’t fathom any other possibility regardless of how hard the evidence smacks them right in the face that I want to punch them right in the fucking face. But that’s not what this is about. This is about a new show, a new mythology, a new serialization, and a pretty bad start to all of the above.
For the record, I watched this show last night with my girlfriend, and she loved it. Not that she’s wrong, it has some moments. I’m just less of a fan. I did however cry more than few tears at some point during the show, but I also had a little to drink, and I’ve been known to bawl like a drunk baby from time to time. But there was still an emotional connection to what I was watching. So it’s not an entirely terrible show. It’s just not as cohesive as a series opener should be. It tries too hard to be all mysterious and shit.
As I live blog my second viewing of this episode to further solidify my problems with the narrative, I’d like to proclaim SPOILERS!!! so if you haven’t seen the show yet, and are interested in forming your own opinions, stop right here. If you want to let me ruin it for you, keep going.
Manifest opens with what is essentially a flashback and present day all at the same time. It’s fairly confusing because the bulk of the show takes place in the present day after the plane jumps through time. So yes, you probably need to see the day of the event (April 7th, 2013), but it should probably be set up as present day to the characters. It’s only confusing because there’s a voice over describing it as a moment in the past. The narrative as a whole (at least for the pilot episode) is told from Michaela’s vantage point, and in the first scene she describes the day everything went holdmybeer as a moment in the past. So she’s an omniscient presence telling the story as a memory. Here’s the problem: that means that even though the show has an automatic jump 5 and a half years into the future, there’s still another gap in the timeline, Michaela’s off somewhere else in another future talking about what happened. So we’re already not getting a first hand account of the current situation. Everything is now a memory. Much like my explanation of how the episode starts, Manifest is already off to a convoluted start and is being held together by a premise that neither establishes a concrete timeline nor has any true sense of identity. Here’s another problem: given that it’s all a recounting of what happened when flight 828 disappeared and reappears after 5 years, there are several possible outcomes. 1) Michaela could have fallen asleep on the plane, and her subconscious grabbed the wheel and created this alternate life for her to live in. We all know dreams can last a life time even though we’ve been asleep for a mere half hour. Her unhappiness with her 2013 life is established immediately in the opening scene (via the out of time voice over as an exposition device), so everything after the jump could very well be all in her head. Or 2) the plane could have actually crashed, and the whole series is just a hallucination in Michaela’s last moments of consciousness before she dies. Anyway…let’s move ahead.
I really hate voice overs*. I do. I think their cheap ass ways to drive a story forward when a writer has no faith in either the audience and their own material. In just 1:11 of a 43 minute show, the voice over and two lines of dialogue explain Michaela’s recurring nightmares about a car accident, he reluctance to get married, her brother (Ben) and sister-in-law have been married for 15 years, and they’re desperate to find a cure for their son’s leukemia. That’s a lot of explaining and very little character interaction. I always point to a moment in Marvel’s Civil War as the best exposition I’ve ever seen on screen: T’Challa explains to Romanoff who and what the Black Panther is, what he does, and how sacred it is to the history of Wakanda. Not only does this fully explain what the character’s all about in less than 30 seconds, but it doesn’t cheapen his first suited up appearance and it completely saves us from an unnecessary origin movie. Here in Manifest, the crutch of the voice over is giving us both a bloated back story and an overweight origin story we didn’t ask for. But it’s probably best to get it out of the way and focus on the mystery. Just beat the audience over the head with it, don’t breathe life into the characters, and get the set up completely out of the way in a “paint by numbers” manner. By the book. No depth. Just lay it all out on counter and hope you can build the drama from something we were told and not what the characters experience (hint: you can’t).
Good lord, I’ve written so much, and we’re not even to the jump through time. It’s really not an all bad show, I promise. I just…have a lot of bad things to say about the first episode.
Here’s another parallel to LOST: None of the main cast were supposed to be on Oceanic flight 815. Some of the people on flight 828 weren’t supposed to be on the plane. The initial flight 527 was overbooked, and the airline offered $400 per person if they were willing to take a later flight. Michaela obviously jumps at the chance to stay away from home for a few more hours, and Ben tells his wife that money would be another trip to the Mayo Clinic. Here’s the thing though…don't tell me Ben’s son has leukemia in a voice over. Have him simply tell his wife how the money could be used. Because at that point, the smarter-than-perceived audience understands that “oh shit…someone must really be sick if he’s willing to take a later flight and split up his family just so they can afford another doctors visit.” See? You don’t need to explain everything. You need to drop little hints a bread crumbs along the dialogue so the audience can invest in the story, put it together themselves, and feel like they’re a part of something. That’s why I’m not a screen writer. I explain every damn thing, and I do a piss poor job of taking my own advice. I’m also probably not going to the gym anymore. I’m too invested in this article. Anyway, this is where the rift happens. Michaela and Ben, for their own perspective reasons, grab a later flight and split up the larger family unit.
AND THEN THE VOICE OVER SAYS EXACTLY WHAT’S HAPPENING ON SCREEN. “So Grace and Olive and my folks took the first flight home. While Ben and Cal and I waited for Flight 828.” We’re now 2 minutes into the pilot episode, and I’ve been writing for an hour. Feels good. Not at all superfluous or wordy.
“Funny how one little decision can ruin your life. But also save it.” Another example of an over utilized writing device that explains too much and leaves nothing to the imagination.
The plane scene. Here’s what happens. A lady is shown typing feverishly on her laptop. Flight attendant hands out peanuts. A random person who doesn’t appear in the rest of the episode asks if they have anything sodium free (ahhh, 2013…the start of it all), Ben tries to convince Michaela to accept a marriage proposal because she truly deserves happiness. A WEATHER SURGE THAT WAS DEFINITELY NOT ON THE RADAR COMPLETE WITH random shots of random individuals probably not so randomly inserted into the scene because they probably have a purpose but not in this episode. The lady’s computer is broken, and we learn that there were 6 weeks worth of research data on it, which means she’s crazy important. A man rudely asks for another drink, the stewardess says “you and me both” as she grabs his empty cup and walks away.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The pilot calls JFK in order to be cleared for landing. I swear, guys, this scene just gave me goosebumps. It’s a moment of honest confusion. The pilot states his name Montego Air flight 828, and ground control goes silent, requests the captain’s name and number of passengers, and then we learn the plane’s being diverted. I wish there was a way to jump straight to a scene on Hulu, but it’s an actual well written scene that starts at 3:58. See? I have good things to say about the show. It just so happens to be a scene that doesn’t involve any previously established characters that creates actual tension through dialogue and character interaction.
So now we’ve landed. The plane is ambushed by cops and people are told they’ve been missing and presumed dead for 5 years. A montage of passengers, each with a different reaction. Sodium free lady is freaking out to point of over the top acting. Rude drinking guy wants to sue because we already didn’t know he’s an asshole. The guy asking all the questions is hard as nails and doesn’t accept their confusion and hysteria as legitimate because THAT’S NOT HOW WE DO IT DOWN AT THE PRECINCT, JOHNSON!! After being detained for 36 hours, the passengers are free to go.
Ben comes face to face with his daughter Olive. He hasn’t seen her in 12 hours. She hasn’t seen him in 5 years. This is the first part of the show that made me cry. I can’t even imagine.
This is where the show really sort of goes sour for me. The world is now knee deep in the 828 hoopla, and a big deal is being made of the passengers’ return. I get it. It’s crazy. I’d be going nuts over this sort of thing, because it would confirm some of my wildest dreams about time vortexes, time travel, worm holes…that smorgasbord of possibilities at the buffet of science fiction. I’d be glued to the TV. But if something of this nature were to take place, you can bet that no stone would be unturned, no passenger would be over looked, and not one person would be at the absolute center of it all. At this point, the show becomes all about Michaela and Ben. Saltless Bae disappears, alcoholic bastard disappears, the Pilot disappears, the random black dude that had a close up curing the turbulence disappears. Nothing. It’s all about this brother/sister combo, with the exception of one other character, but even that circles back around to Ben. This is no longer the ensemble show it was setting itself up to be. Now it’s very focused on selfless Ben and the slightly annoying Michaela.
In the midst of this souring though, there’s another really solid moment. Mich (I’m tired of spelling out her full name) talks to Ben’s wife Grace. She claims for the fifth time in 11 minutes that she’s a screw up and a possible bad influence on their kids. Grace, however, comes back at her with this steaming pile of truth: “The Universe just gave us all a do over. Everything that happened before goes out the window.” Look at thatI A character named Grace practicing grace. Almost as if she was named that on purpose. I love it when I can figure shit like this out. No, kidding. In this scene, Grace becomes one of my favorite characters. I’m tired of getting beaten over the head with how messed up Mich is, but at least something good came out of it.
Also, if you weren't aware people reappearing after an unexplained 5 year absence in strange, don’t worry. The director made sure to have every single background actor overtly and uncomfortably stare at Mich as she enters the police station she once worked at.
At this point…I think you get it. Why I’m so up in the air with this show? I could continue to pick this show apart and air my grievances with it, but I think I’m going to stop. I’m only 16 minutes and 49 seconds into the pilot for a second time, and I’m getting way too long winded for my own good. I’ll boil it down to the following.
There are several things that bother me, more so with newer dramas and sitcoms than shows of the past. A new trend is rising where a studio or a director or a team of producers now beat us over the head with every little detail instead of letting the audience connect the dots with what’s going on. There’s legitimately no mystery anymore, aside from the core mystery of the show, which is obviously “the fuck happened with the plane and the five years?!” My girlfriend spent last night insisting that not every serial drama has to be exactly like LOST and I know that so get off my back about the comparisons! Alright?! Geez. But now, I’m going to compare. The series premiere of LOST did a number of things and established a mysterious environment. The plane crash that 48 people in the fuselage survived with very minor injuries. Then the realization that they were off course and they were being looked for in all the wrong places. And for a brief moment, it was about living on an island with a group of strangers. AND THEN WE HEARD THE MONSTER FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME AT THE END OF THE FIRST EPISODE, and the dynamic TOTALLY changed. Now it was a matter of surviving. It becomes a layered, existential crisis of “Can we survive here?” The show was immediately moved forward by an unknown figure in the jungle.
In Manifest, we’re stuck right from the get go because we spend so much time with exposition and then showing something happening right after it had been explained, and throughout all of it, there’s no genuine character development. To the credit of the show, there are added elements that try to deepen the mystery, but they’re sprinkled all across the episode with zero context and no cohesion to really tie it all together. While it’s perfectly fine to have things just sort of happen for no particular reason, like the monster in the jungle (except that was primarily meant to establish a constant looming threat and to add a new layer to the story), it only works if there’s a hint of a reason and not just because the writer said,”You know what would be dope af?” That’s where I’m at with this show. Was I on the edge of my seat? Absolutely not. Did I hate every second of the thing? Of course I didn’t. There’s almost always something to enjoy about a show like this. Will I watch the rest of the series until either conclusion or cancellation? Yes, because I love shows like this.
And speaking of new trends…while poor acting has always been a thing, there’s this new method where instead of feeling, the actors are showing. You can be in a situation where you become angry, feel angry, act out in anger and you obviously come across as angry. Or you can be in a situation where something happens and your subtext is “I’m angry so I’m going to huff before i say every line” or “I hear voices in my head, so I’m going to grab my head every time I hear them so you know where they’re coming from.” There’s a difference. Do you get it?
I’ll give the pilot episode a 5/10. All criticism aside, I do think it’s got massive potential. I only hope they can stop doing freaky things just because they can, I hope they let the actors act instead of show, and I hope they find some kind of faith in their audience. I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times
But, as I always implore with my own audience, whomever they may be, please make up your own mind, and don’t let me tell you what to think. Manifest airs Mondays on NBC 10/9c after The Voice.
*Except Scrubs. They pretty much owned it and used it for more of a peak into a person’s psyche and showed why whoever narrated the episode was struggling with something or why they chose their particular actions. I hated it in Las Vegas too, but they let it go after four episodes and established more of an ensemble core, so I can forgive it.