Manifest: Season 1 Review
From the trailer of “Manifest,” it is clear that NBC was trying to sell the show as a mix of “This Is Us” and “Lost,” a combination of the emotional and the mysterious, and who could blame them? “Lost” is still considered one of the most successful television shows of all time, and “This is Us” just celebrated its second consecutive Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series. Now, I don’t watch “This is Us,” but, if “Manifest” is anything like it, then the Emmys are even more out of tune with TV than we thought.
Manifest tells the story of a group of passengers on Flight 828 from Jamaica to NYC. After some intense turbulence, the flight lands safely at its destination, seemingly right on time. However, when the passengers get off the plane, they are informed that they have been missing and presumed dead for the last five years.
So who is on the plane? First up, Ben (Josh Dallas of “Once Upon a Time”) and his sick son Cal (Jack Messina), who take a later flight from Jamaica after their original one is overbooked. Grace (Athena Karkanis of “Zoo”), Ben’s wife and Cal’s mother, Olive (Luna Blaise), Cal’s twin sister and Ben’s daughter, and parents/grandparents (Geraldine Leer and Malachy Cleary) take an earlier flight that lands in its regular scheduled time period. Joining Ben on the flight is his sister Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh of “Valor”), a police officer who, at the time of the flight, was debating marrying her longtime boyfriend, Jared (J.R. Ramirez of "Jessica Jones"). The only other person of interest on the flight is Saanvi Bahl (Parveen Kaur), a medical researcher looking into cell generation — but, like the first few episodes of the show, we can ignore her for now.
Once the mystery of the plane’s “disappearance” is set up, the first episode goes into overdrive catching us up on what transpired over the last five years. Ben missed most of Olive’s childhood and his mother passed away; Michaela’s boyfriend moved on, marrying her best friend in her absence. It’s not all bad, though. Saanvi’s research that she “left behind” was a major success, and could present a possible cure for Cal’s leukemia.
This all happens very fast, basically over the first 15 minutes of the pilot, making everything feel rushed. These reunions and realizations should have been the emotional punch of the first few episodes, but instead are quickly shoved aside for sprinkles of mystery and a focus on a different yet seemingly irrelevant passenger every week that reminds me more of a CBS procedural than a character-driven mystery. It’s not surprising that the show took this route early on, though. “Manifest” showed many of its cards too early in the pilot, forcing it to kill time for the next three episodes, lest it run out of content before the end of its 16 episode season order. The writers try to sneak in some moments here and there, but they usually land flat and don’t fit with the plot pacing. Case in point: The first emotional moment we see between Ben and Olive is ruined because it occurs too long after the flight landed. This should have happened much earlier in the plot timeline, and it reflects the poor pacing of the show.
The writers also consistency violate the sacred law of creative writing: show, don’t tell. The show has too much exposition, relying on the word instead of the image. Don’t tell the audience that Olive is a mess and going to therapy; show them a scene where she messed up. Don’t tell the audience that Michaela and Lourdes (Victoria Luz Cartagena) were best friends; show, through flashbacks, how they spent their time together. What made “Lost” so good was its ability to use flashbacks (and flashforwards) as a way to show and grow character. “Manifest” should follow its example and let the past speak for itself, but use its twist — the fact that the “past” means very different things to those that were on the plane vs. those that were not — to separate itself from its big brother.
That is not to say that “Manifest” never uses flashbacks. Half of episode five is dedicated to what happened to characters, such as Grace and Jared, while the plane was missing. However, like the pilot, they breeze through major moments too quickly, leaving me worried that they will run out of compelling material too soon. This episode also focused on things we already knew from the exposition dump in the pilot, which makes most of the episode feel repetitive, as nothing new is added to the drama. When returning to a past where the ending is already known, “Manifest” must make the trip worth it for the audience and show us something new. We were not there to see what we already knew, which makes me question why they took us there in the first place.
There are some signs of promise, though. Episodes four and five focus more on the family drama, and the episodes work much better because of it. Ben and Grace repairing their marriage after five years “apart” is particularly heart-wrenching, as is the relationship between Cal and his now former twin sister. However, “Manifest” will need more of that if it wants to make up for the lousy writing — can someone please stop writing lines for Ben and Michaela’s mother that sound like she is quoting inspirational cat posters and give her things that actual humans say? — poor pacing, lack of noteworthy performances — does anyone else feel like Josh Dallas is both yelling and whispering simultaneously whenever he speaks? — and formulaic episode structures that plague its takeoff. Let’s hope the landing is more smooth.
Photo Caption: Manifest tells the story of a group of passengers on Flight 828 from Jamaica to NYC. When the passengers get off the plane, they are informed that they have been missing for the last five years.
Photo Credit: NBC