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From ‘Manifest’ to ‘God Friended Me:’ The Challenges of Trying to Be the New ‘Lost’

Like “Lost,” these mystery shows don’t have to give all the answers, but they should give a reason to watch.

"God Friended Me"

“God Friended Me”

CBS

[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from the first half of “Manifest,” “God Friended Me,” and “A Million Little Things” Season 1.]

Eight years later, the “Lost” legacy is alive and well. J.J. Abrams, Carlton Cuse, and Damon Lindelof proved it was possible to extend the enigma of Oceanic Flight 815 across six seasons, and this fall brought three shows that accepted the challenge for their own overarching mysteries: NBC’s “Manifest,” ABC’s “A Million Little Things,” and CBS’ “God Friended Me.”

The shows aren’t “Lost” copycats — each is vastly different in premise and approach — but they harbor the shared hope of providing the kind of addictive storytelling that turned “Lost” into a cultural touchstone and a ratings monster.

“Lost” provides a rough template: The story of survival after a plane crashed on an island gave way to an intriguing character study as each person’s backstory was revealed. Then the show introduced outside threats and unexplained phenomena. Some answers were forthcoming, only to inspire new questions. Characters died to make way for new ones. It required toggling between storytelling consistency and the demand for reinvention, but that also created the dramatic tension that kept viewers hooked.

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It’s a good lesson for any show: While developing NBC’s philosophical comedy “The Good Place,” creator Mike Schur consulted with Lindelof on how to balance the mystery payoff with an ongoing story. In its third season, “The Good Place” has seen multiple reinventions while providing a consistent and compelling story world.

“Manifest,” “A Million Little Things,” and “God Friended Me” demonstrate the main challenge of the mystery premise: if no answers are given, there must be other reasons to watch. “God Friended Me” gives a strong, uplifting procedural experience, while “A Million Little Things” has intermittent success with its characters’ many heartaches. “Manifest,” the least successful, has tried to offer some character backgrounds with limited success.

While It’s too early for anyone on these shows to know what’s going on, but on “God Friended Me,” it feels like the writers do. “A Million Little Things” seems to have a goal, but is making up the rest of it as it goes along, while “Manifest” just keeps digging a deeper hole to fill with more mysteries.

Looking forward, “God Friended Me” is the one show that feels guaranteed to stay the course and keep delivering solid storytelling. The other two will have to prove themselves in the back half of their seasons.

”Manifest”

Grade: D

Parveen Kaur, "Manifest"

Parveen Kaur, “Manifest”

Virginia Sherwood/NBC/Warner Brothers

“Manifest” is the most like “Lost” in that a massive, unexplained phenomenon happened to a large group of people. Flight 858 took off from Jamaica and landed in New York as planned, but to the outside world, five years have passed. All passengers were presumed dead. Reintegrating with their lives and loved ones set up emotional stakes

Of the three shows, “Manifest” had the strongest premise out of the gate and drew 10.3 million viewers. The story offered a twist in that passengers would get bizarre psychic “callings” that, when heeded, often led to positive results, such as the discovery of abducted women. What if whoever did this to the passengers had a benevolent goal in mind? The survivors all also seemed to be connected psychically, which also pointed at a possible greater plan at work.

Sadly, “Manifest” hasn’t lived up to its potential. The callings could have been explored in an episodic manner, bringing the show’s main cast into contact with the other passengers as they did good deeds. However, the callings became less reliable, confusing, and even resulted in death. The psychic connection also became tainted with interference by a shady agency. With the exception of the twins — one who was on the plane, and one who aged five years in the outside world — the characters offer little beyond their roles in solving the mystery of this flight.

The midseason finale felt disconnected from everything that came before. Scientific experimentations, the storming of a warehouse, explosions, and psychic visions — it was a mess. As if it skipped several episodes’ worth of storytelling, the show is now in a headlong rush to throw every possible speed bump in to change the show’s direction. When “Manifest” returns, it will need to slow down and reestablish whatever its new rules are — if it even knows what they are.

”A Million Little Things”

Grade: C+

"A Million Little Things"

“A Million Little Things”

ABC

ABC’s drama began with a group of friends learning of the suicide of their pal John (Ron Livingston), a man who had every privilege and was so charming, positive, and thoughtful that it made no sense he’d kill himself. In the course of investigating how John could have been driven to such a desperate act, the show reveals details about the secret lives of his friends and family.

The show probably owes its existence to NBC’s weepy drama “This Is Us” which plays with flashbacks and misconceptions to establish how there’s always more to the story. And so far, the show has attracted a modest but loyal following, averaging about 3.6 million viewers over the course of its 10 episodes so far. The strength of “A Million Little Things” is how it’s set up a diverse and yet extensive core cast. It’s clear that the show loves these characters and has put thought into them. Performances are strong across the board, especially with Grace Park, James Roday, Allison Miller, and Stephanie Szostak.

Unfortunately, it’s sometimes difficult to get on board with these characters in light of the central mystery; there’s no guarantee that a person’s reasons for killing themselves will ever be understood. One of the most macabre storylines on “This Is Us” revolved around how patriarch Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) died, and NBC turned the revelation into a giant, distasteful event to be unveiled in the post-Super Bowl episode.

While “This Is Us” moved past that story to explore others, “A Million Little Things” is still caught in that grim web. The show has trouble doing right by the characters because the specter of John still looms. It’s almost become a sick joke that every party or gathering must end with someone crying, raging, storming out, or receiving bad news — and the fall finale was no different when widow Delilah (Szostak) finds out that John left her in massive debt. It looks like John’s story will be around at least for the rest of the season, but it remains to be seen if the audience does.

”God Friended Me”

Grade: B

"God Friended Me"

“God Friended Me”

CBS

CBS’ drama is far more lighthearted, which is fitting for its goofy premise: Atheist podcaster Miles (Brandon Micheal Hall) receives a Facebook friend request from someone calling themselves God, and with every friend suggestion or “like” on that account, Miles finds himself helping people. His hacker pal Rakesh (Suraj Sharma) is helping him try to uncover who is behind the God account, while reporter Cara (Violett Beane) goes along with each case and then writes up the heartwarming results.

The most similar show to this is CBS’ own 2003 series “Joan of Arcadia,” which starred Amber Tamblyn as the titular teenager chosen by God — wearing different guises each time — to perform seemingly random tasks that usually proved to have a greater, more positive purpose. While Miles and his God squad are trying to unmask their digital Oz, what’s intriguing is it really doesn’t matter if viewers learn the answers. Instead, the episodic thrill comes from following the case of the week and the circuitous ways that Miles learns who he’s helping and how.

The show has a sense of vision that makes every episode feel part of a bigger picture, while satisfyingly self-contained. A charming cast with good chemistry, a lighthearted tone, and conclusions with themes of redemption make this show a joy to watch. The premiere drew 10.1 million viewers and has retained much of its audience, making it the most successful of the three new mystery shows ratings-wise.

If there’s one gripe, it’s that the show is too quick to accellerate the mystery of who’s behind the God account. In the winter finale, Rakesh has mapped the cases throughout the city to reveal a Fibonacci spiral pattern, and when the gang arrives at its center, they meet a familiar face who tells them, “It’s time you knew the truth.” Frankly, the show could do without the “Da Vinci Code” shenanigans and leave the God-account mystery on the back burner. Of course, this could be a huge misdirect and may not deliver real answers. At this point, the show doesn’t need to course correct, but viewers will have to take these new developments on faith that they won’t ruin the show.

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