MANIFEST: 1.01 “Pilot”
Every new fall season, I have my lists: shows I’m super excited about returning (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend! The Good Place! Jane the Virgin!), returning favorites that I watch but may be ambivalent about (Supergirl, The Flash), new shows I’m looking forward to checking out (A Million Little Things), and new shows I know little about but will check out if I have time (Single Parents). Manifest, as it turns out, falls into that third category, where I’ve been looking forward to it. So it was nice to have it be the first new premiere I watched this season.
Now, I’ll preface this by acknowledging my skepticism. The premise seemed intriguing: A plane takes off but lands five years later. No one has aged who was on the plane. Where did they go? What happened? It sounded exactly like one of those shows you’d get super-invested in right before it got cancelled.
But here’s where the reality kicks in. Within moments of the show starting, Flight 828 went up, hit some unexpected turbulence, and then landed five years later. They all had their reunions with families (missing the now late mother, of course), and everyone is confused as to what happened. The FBI starts to interrogate the flight crew and passengers… And then everything is back to business, where family is home with family, and other than a few references to having no belongings or a working phone, they’re basically back to the real world.
Michaela, our heroine sister, starts hearing voices. Or, rather, her voice, instructing her to do things. “Slow down.” “Let them free.” Then we find out brother Ben has the same new power. And suddenly, it’s not just them. It’s all the passengers—at least that’s how it seems by the episode’s end.
All of this happens within one hour of network television. And while I have some complaints about the supernatural element of the show (I wasn’t expecting magical voices and premonitions), my biggest issue is that the reality of the world these people are returning to was highly ignored. How can we care about characters when we don’t really know what life was like for them before they took off, let alone how different it is once they landed?
Let’s pause there. We get a nice voiceover at the beginning, seeing what would appear to be a “happy family.” We know Michaela is dealing with something and that it ties to her decision of whether to marry her boyfriend. And we know Ben’s son has leukemia, and it doesn’t look good. Beyond a brief—and I do mean brief—tension between Michaela and her mother about said engagement, there’s barely any conflict.
So it’s a bit surprising when later we find out that Michaela was on desk duty because she’s being evaluated after her partner died in the car next to her. Or how important her best friend Lourdes was (someone we hadn’t even heard of before), when we hear that she married Michaela’s old beau. In a show that would have been nice to get more show than tell, all we get is spoken backstory at the wrong times. This essentially means we barely know the characters, we can barely understand what they’re going through, and even when you discover that dear old mom has sadly passed, we can’t muster a hint of emotion.
But aside from the backstory, we barely saw any reaction to the five-year jump. We see initial shock and, again, annoyance that they don’t have belongings or a phone. But where is the adjustment period? Other than Ben’s moment trying to reconnect with his daughter, it’s like no time has passed at all. For them, it’s been two days. Where’s the frustration that everyone keeps telling you “it’s been five years” when to them, it hasn’t been? Where’s the confusion to coming back to a world that would be different? I mean, they’re in New York. You mean to tell me that walking the streets of the city, they wouldn’t see different storefronts—that their favorite diner or donut shop has shut down? Everyone is still living in the same houses, with no change to decor other than soccer pictures? Ben seems oddly calm that he suddenly has to find a job, when I assume he had one when he left (which was, again, to him, two days ago). Geez, even an iPhone would’ve had multiple generations since the time they left.
Or, how about everyone else? We barely saw the FBI interrogate the passengers, which would likely take days, if not longer. They’d probably be taken to hospitals for medical tests. Sure, luggage would’ve been investigated (as we saw), but they’d probably confiscate all other devices on that plane to scour the data. And what about the press? These people would be hounded, treated as celebrities. A normal life? I think not.
Somehow the series decided to skip all that in favor of jumping into supernatural mystery. While I realize it would’ve made for a slower beginning, I would’ve much preferred to see some of these lives in 2013, see how people interact and get to know them for half an episode, before they got on a plane that changed the course of their lives forever. Spend some time showing them getting acclimated in an episode or two, and then, right when you think they’ve got a handle on things, introduce these voices and visions to add a new twist, throwing them off their game once again. Is it a slower build? Sure. But at least we’d know who we were watching.
Because for now, while they may have set up a mystery to figure out (with a self-exploding plane, for good measure), I don’t yet care about any of the characters. These people couldn’t been gone for a day, a week, or a month, and they would’ve had the same reactions as they did after five years.
And if anything, giving a little more time for their lives to develop and then get pulled out from under them would offer us the opportunity to get to know them (I’m ashamed to say that I actually had to look up Michaela’s name on IMDB because even in an hour of TV focused on her, I never learned it). But without any sort of life before, they have no personality. No personality means no real reaction to what happened. And with no real reaction, it’s hard to keep my interest, no matter how many visions and voices are thrown my way.