Let’s get it out of the way: Lost changed things for television. Every year since its 2004 premiere, networks have tried to emulate its magic, with varying degrees of success. This year’s entry from ABC is FlashForward. It carries the same network logo, a pair of familiar faces, even a billboard advertising a certain ill-fated airline. But while FlashForward’s spin on the Lost paradigm captures its sense of oddity, it lacks the patience and sense to let the audience engage on its own.
We open on a man who wakes to find a disaster. Instead of a doctor, we learn he’s a federal agent. Instead of an island, we find him in Los Angeles. Instead of a plane crash, everything has crashed—cars, helicopters, you name it. It’s happened all over the world. For two minutes, everyone on the planet blacks out, and glimpses their lives six months in the future.
The pilot’s opening tease, including the brief flashback to fill us in on the jolting intro, suffers from narrative ADD. In nine minutes, we’re introduced to ten separate characters with five interconnected storylines. And that’s all before the “event” even takes place.
In comparison, Lost dropped us into a world of chaos and let everything unfold through the eyes of one man—Jack Shepherd. In that first opening salvo, we glimpse the faces of every major player, but we see it all through Jack’s eyes. He’s our conduit. Through his heroic actions, he’s the first to earn our sympathies, and our loyalty.
The front runner of FlashForward is FBI agent Mark Benford (capably played by Joseph Fiennes). He never has a chance to earn our loyalty. The narrative instead picks up threads involving various folk in Mark’s life; including his wife (Lost’s Sonja Walger), her suicidal associate, Bryce (Zachary Knighton); Mark’s partner, Demetri (John Cho); and Mark’s AA sponsor, Aaron (Brian F. O’Byrne). All of whom might become interesting characters in future installments, but for now, they’re simply ciphers for examining the myriad implications of the “event.”
Certain production aspects undermine the effort in selling the premise. Take sound, for instance. At one moment, as Mark and Demetri try to help the wounded on a wrecked LA freeway, the sound of an explosion diverts their attention to a helicopter that’s just crashed into a building. The building and the helicopter sit maybe a mile away, easily a part of the LA skyline. We hear the sound as the incident occurs, and our heroes react.
Sound, however, has to travel in real life. Consider a similar moment in the film Red Dawn. Just after enemy troops land in Small Town, USA, Patrick Swayze and a group of survivors drive into a fuel station to collect provisions. Swayze’s character looks to the mountains, searching for a place for all of them to hide. The shot frames his face, we see a fireball erupt in the field behind him, but we don’t hear the sound just yet. The boom follows shortly after, like thunder after a distant lightning strike. Maybe it’s a quibble, but it helps to sell the make believe premise if I’ve already bought the make believe world.
Based on the novel by Robert J. Sawyer, FlashForward comes to life through the writing talents of David Goyer (Dark City, the Blade trilogy) and Brannon Braga (Star Trek: TNG, 24), both able writers who know how to produce solid work. For now, they need to stop and take a breath before inundating the audience with on-the-nose exposition spelling out the multiple facts and clues of the plot.
And we have a heap of clues. Each person’s FlashForward presents an enigma that hopes to set up a future pay off. Mark sees himself investigating the event, just before masked villains show up with guns. One character sees a relative once believed dead. Another, however, sees nothing. The visions even correlate between individuals who find familiar faces walking along in these eerie phantasms.
Whenever a story attempts to weave time travel (or, in this case, one of its derivatives) into the narrative, it lends an opportunity to explore wonderful questions regarding chance and destiny, faithfulness and belief, what we know and what we hope. Herein lays this story’s greatest potential, and most threatening obstacle. Lost’s success depended on creating characters interesting enough to hold our interest even when answers to the mystery were long in coming. FlashForward seems to drop the audience into the world and expect us to hang on for the ride.
Alex Wainer, who writes at The Culture Beat, nails it when he writes that the show “gives us mysteries, but little mystery.” For now, it’s a compelling enough beginning to bring us back for the next installment. The FlashForwards have worked to earn a little sympathy. The pilot ends on a clever twist that raises our curiosity. Next, it must earn our loyalty. So far, it hasn’t.
FlashForward airs Thursday nights at 8/7c on ABC.