At first glance, Manifest is yet another Lost clone. In other words, even though it’s been roughly eight years since ABC’s island puzzle box drama arrived at a divisive conclusion, TV — and broadcast television in general — hasn’t yet moved on. As such, in terms of the fall 2018 television season, the next big thing isn’t something new; it’s someone else’s reheated creative leftovers. The trouble with NBC’s new drama series, then, isn’t so much that its premise so closely resembles a series that helped birth a new wave or online fan speculation and accompanying explainers, but that it just really doesn’t mind. The series actively wants the viewer drawing comparisons to the events aboard Oceanic Flight 815 that set in motion six seasons worth of obsessive TV watching.
To its credit, Manifest diligently sets out to construct its mystery, beginning with another flight, this time, Montego Air 828. After experiencing some abrupt but otherwise innocuous turbulence during its trip to New York, Montego Air 828 lands five years after its initial takeoff, leaving everyone on board presumed dead and the plane’s whereabouts a complete mystery. That mystery should deepen as the pilot goes on, but Manifest quickly gets distracted by other, less interesting mysteries.
Yet the biggest problem with Manifest, aside from being fairly dry and populated with mostly two-dimensional characters, is really one of perspective. The show itself is centered on those on board the seemingly doomed flight, in particular, Ben Stone (Josh Dallas), his sister Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh), and Ben’s leukemia-stricken son, Cal (Jack Messina). There are others, too, such as Saanvi (Parveen Kaur), a research scientist studying — you guessed it — leukemia, as well as a handful of other, mostly stock characters, like a litigious passenger and the plane’s incredulous captain.
This approach finds Manifest, like Lost, told from the perspective of a group of survivors, the one’s most directly affected by the inciting incident of its central mystery. But Manifest’s isn’t all that interested in the idea of nearly 200 people vanishing off the face of the earth and then reappearing five years later, without having aged a day. Instead, it’s more focused on the idea of what comes next. Unfortunately for Manifest, what comes next derails the story from the intrigue of watching people wrap their heads around having lost loved ones returned to them no worse for wear. More troubling is the way in which the pilot glosses over the challenge of returning 200 people to their regularly scheduled lives and the potential emotional damage that’s done to both those onboard the flight and those left to grapple with its disappearance.
Manifest is rather flippant in that regard, mainly because there are strange, disembodied voices to be listened to, dogs to be set free, and kidnapped girls to save. Why any of this is important is apparently the next big mystery the show wants to tease its audience with. But perhaps the bigger mystery is why, when it has a perfectly good mystery already, does Manifest feel the need to begin another, less interesting one? And why, when there is an earth-shattering supernatural event that the whole world presumably has knowledge of, does the series shift its attention to a kidnapping entirely unrelated to the story that’s being told? And finally, why does this ancillary mystery require Roxburgh’s Michaela (a cop with a troubled past) to run around while her own disembodied voice shouts vague instructions like a malfunctioning digital assistant?
As a result, it doesn't take long for Manifest to feel over-engineered, like it’s throwing stuff at the audience to keep them watching, keep them guessing what’s going to happen next instead of wondering what the point of all this is. All that stuff — the kidnapping, the voices, the passengers drawn back to the plane (which promptly explodes) — distracts from a far more interesting story about loss and grief and time you can’t get back that this series doesn’t seem prepared to tell.
The characters most problematically affected by these distractions are the ones from whose perspective the series should be told -- i.e., the other half of the Stone family. This includes Ben’s wife, Grace (Athena Karkanis), his daughter Olive (Luna Blaise), who is also Cal’s now five-years-older twin sister, and the recently widowed family patriarch, Steve (Malachy Cleary). They all get short shrift here. The pilot suggests Grace has (understandably) begun a new relationship with someone other than the husband she thought dead, but that gives the audience little reason to be invested in her character or her relationship with Ben.
What Manifest needs is an audience proxy, something it has in Grace, Olive, Steve, or Michaela’s former flame, Jared Vasquez (J.R. Ramirez), but fails to capitalize on in the pilot. It’s clear by her voiceover that the series intends Michaela to function in this capacity, but she’s embroiled in too many mysteries — those central to the show as well as one from her past that remains frustratingly vague — to suit such a purpose. The result leaves the audience with nothing to ground them to a nebulous mystery that lacks genuine intrigue. As the season progresses, perhaps it will find a way to develop the characters as well as the mysteries surrounding them, but for the time being, a reason to be genuinely intrigued by Manifest has yet to materialize.
Manifest continues next Monday with ‘Reentry’ @10pm on NBC.