By now, most people know the premise of FlashForward, the debuting ABC series adapted from the Robert J. Sawyer novel: every person in the world blacks out at the same moment and wakes up two minutes and seventeen seconds later, having had a vision of themselves exactly six months in the future.
It’s a tight premise, but the implications are huge: the inevitable global chaos caused by the initial blackout; the mystery of the blackout itself; and the effects that a glimpse of the future has on the people who receive it.
Good news: FlashForward hits the first two!
Bad news: it stumbles on the third.
The pilot opens with a bang, as Joseph Fiennes wakes up in the wreckage of his car and stumbles out onto the freeway, taking in the total chaos as far as he can see. (Opening with the major disaster is one of about eight hundred ways in which this pilot is similar to the pilot of Lost. Since I’m guessing most of these similarities are intentional, we’ll just get that out of the way.)
There are brief flashbacks to earlier in the day, but the showrunners know to start where the hook starts, and we get mere glimpses of Agent Benford’s family, his partner, and our ancillary characters before the big moment strikes (mid-car-chase, too—this show is going to use every penny of that big budget!).
And the big moment is big. The show succeeds more here than anywhere else, presenting a bloody, smoky apocalypse that feels chillingly real, from the miles-long accidents on the LA freeways to the television broadcasts of cities around the world struggling with the wreckage. (The moment when a character wakes up on the beach and looks out over the water, where the waves are washing up all the surfers who have drowned, was particularly evocative.)
(Dear show, I see what you did with the OMGWTFKANGAROO.)
Once most of the major characters have assembled, it’s time to start hashing out what happened. No one wastes any time: Benford is the first of the FBI agents to mention he had a flashforward, during which he was investigating this very phenomenon, and others quickly chime in. The hunt for the future is So On.
And so the mystery begins, and smartly not with the whodunit, but instead by sinking its teeth into the major human dilemmas presented by an event of this magnitude. How much of the mystery will Benford be solving, and how much will he just be relying on notes that he saw in his flashforward? Will people be working to prevent the future (Benford the last-chance alcoholic sees himself drinking, and his frustrated wife sees herself with another man), or will they be hoping to bring this future to life (a man who sees the return of his long-lost daughter)? Is this future set in stone, or was it shown to the world as a warning? Why only six months ahead; what don’t we know? How will each character look to the future now that they’ve seen what could be? The possibilities of knowing the future on a human psyche could be devastating, and with a cast of compelling characters this setup could make for sublime drama.
Unfortunately, here, the show goes flat.
The characters are the usual suspects you’d expect in a drama that hopes to cover multiple angles of a world-changing yet home-hitting event (four FBI agents, two doctors, a criminal, and the winsome child of a failing marriage walk into a bar!), and the pilot has its hands too full juggling them all to give any of them real depth. Some of the characters just seem like pacing mistakes (loving, lingering shots of the comely bra-clad babysitter doesn’t disguise the fact that she’s boring), but there are moments that hint at better things: Alex Kingston, as an FBI attaché in England called on to corroborate someone’s vision, brings more intensity to her four-line performance than most of the others manage in an hour. The same goes for Jack Davenport, who gets one line and manages to infuse it with mystery.
(Dear England, thanks for lending us so many of your fine character actors for this! We’ll give them back when we’re finished.)
It’s not that anyone is particularly terrible, either; there’s just a sense that in all the focus on the blackout and the mystery, they forgot to make anyone interesting. (This is an awkward time to not be like Lost, by the way.) The blandness is most noticeable in hero Joseph Fiennes, whose FBI agent looks appropriately grim but lacks the charisma to make us worry about the future of his marriage. (His relationship with his wife is shorthanded in teasing “I hope I never see you again” texts that are supposed to make us believe in their True Love. It…doesn’t quite work.)
Of all the actors in the pilot, John Cho (as Agent Noh) does the most with what he’s given, from his almost-unhinged arrest of a suspect from an unrelated crime (or is it?) to a tight-lipped reveal that he hasn’t had a flashforward—which he thinks means he bites the big one before April 29. (But that would be May sweeps! Say it ain’t so, ABC!)
Noh’s confession is topped only by the last-minute twist: during the worldwide blackout, at least one person was awake. (Why that person was checking out a ball game in Detroit is a mystery that may never be solved.)
This fall lynchpin will have no problems finding success (hey, you have to watch SOMETHING after Lost); they’ve even peppered the cast with island alums to keep you from feeling too homesick. So far, the immediacy of the circumstance has overshadowed the characters, but everyone but Fiennes has the potential to get more interesting, so it’s not hopeless. Besides, as long as they keep throwing in cliffhangers, they’re clearly good for at least five seasons, right?
Genevieve Valentine doesn’t see why anyone would be upset by a flashforward that shows them dating Jack Davenport. She tracks him (and other alumni from Awesome British Actor Camp) at her blog.