Manifest is an American drama television series, created by Jeff Rake, that premiered on September 24, 2018, on NBC. The series centers on the passengers and crew of a commercial airliner who suddenly reappear after being presumed dead for five years. It stars Melissa Roxburgh, Josh Dallas, Jack Messina, Athena Karkanis, J.R. Ramirez, Parveen Kaur, Curtiss Cook, Daryl Edwards and Luna Blaise.
Diving right in
My initial response: Yawn. It wasn’t as if I didn’t enjoy the first episode. I just had the distinct impression I had seen it all before. I had. It was the same kind of pacing and storytelling that went into another network flash in the pan, CBS’s The 4400 (2004-2007).
In The 4400, a mysterious ball of light deposits 4,400 individuals who don’t remember where they are from (some as far back as the 1930s) and the paranoia which stirs around them as they develop incredible psychic capabilities. To be fair, it wasn’t technically a flash in the pan, because it ran four seasons but the show lost steam for me after the first two… I finished it but left unsatisfied.
Manifest also brought to mind another airplane focused show which also left me with a bit of an initial good feeling: ABC’s Lost (2004-2010). I am betting Manifest will be compared to it, but I hope does better. Yes, Lost may have been classified a hit, but from where I stand, the less said about Lost, in my opinion, the better.
In Manifest, the characters are the passengers of Flight 828 who are flying home from Jamaica and vanish while on the journey home. To the world at large, their plane disappeared from radar and was not seen again. Everyone on board was reported missing, presumed dead. In the mainstream timeline, everyone continues on with their lives such as they are. People married, divorced, family members died or grew older, pretty much everything you would expect.
When Flight 828 returns, after a space-time anomaly shakes them up a bit, they reappear in New York space five years (and millions of miles later, because planets move through space as well as time, so this is really an incredible feat of technology or magic) and for them, the flight has been exactly as long as they expected it to be (+5.5 years).
Worse, when they get home they are subjected to a battery of inspections, interrogations and suspicions, as if everyone on the plane landed somewhere, hid for five years and then got back on the plane and continued home, unchanged for the experience.
To be fair, the paranoia is justified, magically disappearing planes where no one has aged a day but five years has passed are definitely a problem worthy of consternation. But since the government doesn’t know how to analyze or even define the problem, they let the passengers go home. (On our Earth, they would have been relegated to a black site and probably never seen again, but this is television.)
After heading home, the various cast members begin to have psychic events, hearing voices, coincidently appearing in the same places and after a seeming miraculous coincidence, the passengers are drawn back to the plane which, having revealed no secrets, was scheduled to be taken apart to see if (presumably, the FAA and FBI officials) could discover what happened.
The plane promptly and spectacularly explodes taking its secrets with it. Hmmm. How did I feel about the show up until this point? Not a complete waste of time. Everything that needed to happen did. There was a bit of angst amongst the characters as they attempt to fit back into their lives, with the expected and unexpected being equally jarring.
All of that seemed pretty normal and now that the plane has blown itself up, the cast of characters, of which there are nearly two hundred passengers is free to have a variety of strange occurrences where they are watched by the government as whatever mysterious force plays chess with these unfortunates.
Was it a bad pilot?
No. Everyone did their job. The angst felt genuine and the setups for the relationship problems seemed normal and properly problematic. Twins reunited, now five years apart, husband and wife drama, getting back to work and all that, felt right. Perhaps I just felt I needed something more significant to happen. Agreed, that is a strange statement given a plane traveled through time and space, gave its passengers psychic abilities, who are now being investigated by the police, but…
Okay, now I realize why it bothered me: Who are the bad guys? Surely this isn’t a coincidence. Who stands to gain by the reappearance of this plane? What allowed this to happen? I think what I am missing is the other shoe which has not appeared to drop yet. Thus I am forced to put up with at least one more episode to decide if I really didn’t like it, or whether I hadn’t seen enough to make a real assessment.
I have seen this before and it never tends to end well, particularly when it tries to be restrained rather than over-the-top. I am hoping for a sinister organization using time travel to exploit some aspect of reality unknown to the participants in the experiments (ala the Canadian sci-fi series, Continuum).
Because if this show becomes some Touched by an Angel nonsense (remember this is network television) I will be so pissed. I don’t want more supernatural drama. I know Touched by An Angel ran for nine seasons but that doesn’t mean it was good (to me). I expect to get angry mail from the Touched by An Angel fan committee.
For comparison, I think of that series, ‘The Returned which had an interesting premise but felt hamstrung by its religious themes and its glacial pacing. If The Returned gets to season three, it will indeed be a miracle.
On the other hand, Supernatural, a supernatural monster-bashing show features, angels, demons and every other kind of mythical super-beastie is on Season 10 or 11 (I’ve lost count) and shows no sign of stopping…
Maybe Manifest can be something in between Touched by An Angel and the sci-fi thriller series, Fringe. Challenging enough to stay awake for yet not so traumatizing and religious, I feel as if I need to attend church afterward. I’ll let you know what I find. There better be some real villains, because I don’t want to spend the rest of the season using psychic powers to rescue kittens from trees and blaming it on divine intervention.
Ultimately, my feeling on this show is: Manifest resembles too many network television series that have come before and didn’t make manifest anything significantly different. It was effective in its delivery of the material presented, but it lacked in originality and in showcasing its cast diversity, especially if you compare it to any of the other shows it so closely resembles.
The pilot gets a 5.5 out of 10. A little lackluster, but I’m hopeful.
Thaddeus Howze is an award-winning writer, editor, podcaster and activist creating speculative fiction, scientific, political and cultural commentary from his office in Hayward, California.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He has published two books, ‘Hayward’s Reach’ (2011), a collection of short stories and ‘Broken Glass’ (2013) an urban fantasy novella starring his favorite paranormal investigator, Clifford Engram.