[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for the pilot “Manifest.”]
There are very few universal truths about television, but the most important thing about pretty much any show is this: You have to care about the characters. And that’s the biggest obstacle facing NBC’s “Manifest,” which sets up a massive mystery and a mild family melodrama with its first episode, focused on what happens when a plane containing over a hundred souls goes missing for five years, arriving on the ground as if no time has passed for those on the plane.
It’d be nice to write about “Manifest” without bringing up ABC’s “Lost,” especially since in the years since “Lost” premiered no shortage of series have attempted to capture that same magical blend of genre and drama elements. It’d also be nice to write about “Manifest” with an understanding of how this functions as a series. However, this show begins with some weird stuff happening to a bunch of theoretical strangers on the same plane flight, and NBC only provided the first episode to press in advance. So “Lost” can’t help but linger in the memory, and all that can be evaluated at this stage is how the pilot showcases what it means, for these people to have lost so many years of time.
There’s a whole plane full of folks whose stories, it’s presumed, will be a major part of the series, but the pilot focuses on the Stone family’s unique situation — a nuclear family torn apart by the event, twins now completely mismatched in age, and aunt Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh) coping with her own struggles.
Michaela serves as the show’s closest thing to a protagonist (you can tell, because Roxburgh gets the voiceover) but she’s defined entirely by circumstances and facts — she’s a cop, her one-time fiance is now married, she’s still consumed by a crisis of faith and confidence following a tragic accident from prior to the flight. Those are interesting building blocks, and Roxburgh feels committed, but Michaela as a character simply never comes together, and everyone else in her orbit feels equally flimsy.
Virginia Sherwood/NBC/Warner Brothers
There’s opportunity for that to change, of course, presuming that the show lives up to these fateful words from during the final scene: “Ben and I didn’t know any of these people yet, but soon we’d know them as well as we knew ourselves.”
It’s a promise that could be interesting, if it’s kept, and there are a number of really interesting ideas to be uncovered in “Manifest.” In these post-“Lost” days, creators seem less likely to take on high concept premises without at least the bare minimum of a game plan (though for fun I’m putting my money on it being aliens, because why not), though the emphasis in this episode on how newfound psychic powers helps Michaela solve crimes hints at a perhaps procedural bent.
Meanwhile, the final moments of the episode, in which the passengers of Flight 828 (and yeah, just like “Lost,” numbers matter here) are drawn together to watch the plane explode (courtesy of some not-great CGI), don’t offer the intrigue necessary to be truly addictive. “Who blew up the plane?” is hardly, “What the hell is this magic island?” as far as mysteries go.
However, it’s at least worth watching at least one more. Just in case it does happen to be aliens.