'Manifest': TV Review

Despite 'Lost' DNA, this mythology-based drama could be a lost cause.
9/24/2018

NBC's mysterious new drama offers a plane full of potentially fascinating stories to tell, so why are the main characters and their supernatural/spiritual mission so dull?

Not to get all "Webster's Dictionary defines 'manifest' as…" on you, but "manifest" really is a fun word. Its primary definition is along the lines of making something evident or visible, a definition that very frequently has a biblical or religious connotation. God manifests God's power and God's love. Manifest Destiny was the notion that white colonial expansion across North America was ordained by a higher power.

As a noun, a manifest is a passenger list for a boat or a plane.

Oh and the word's Latin etymology implies a certain clarity or obviousness. There are some things that require effort to be perceived or understood. Once something is manifest, however, you're probably supposed to be able to nod and say, "I get it. Chill out."

So "manifest" is a good word, and it's also an appropriate title for the new NBC series Manifest, a beat-you-over-the-head piece of mythology-based drama with an aeronautic backdrop and religious underpinnings that, at least for the lone episode sent to critics, are far more, um, "manifest" than you might be expecting.

Written by Jeff Rake, Manifest begins in April 2013. A Montego Air flight out of Jamaica is overbooked and, as airlines are wont to do, they offer passengers the opportunity to rebook for a later flight for future vouchers. Among those taking advantage are siblings Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh) and Ben (Josh Dallas) Stone. Michaela is an NYC cop coming off a recent unspecified tragedy, and she takes the money to avoid spending more time with her lovingly nagging parents. Ben takes the later flight with son Cal (Jack Messina), battling cancer, while wife Grace (Athena Karkanis) and daughter Olive (Luna Blaise) take the original flight. Ben's rationalization is that those vouchers will buy tickets to Mayo for Cal's future treatments, an idea that's broached and accepted before anybody stops to check if a Jamaica-based airline even has any direct flights between New York City and Minnesota.

Well, Montego Air Flight 828 takes off, experiences a brief bout with turbulence and arrives in New York airspace only to be rerouted to a neighboring airport. The problem? They arrive on the tarmac to a welcome party of FBI agents looking for answers because it's now November 2018, and Montego Air Flight 828 and the 191 souls on the ship's manifest have been missing for five years.

Yowzas!

Not surprisingly, this has everybody just a bit freaked out — both the people on the flight who seem not to have aged a day, and their loved ones, who have aged the appropriate amount of time and have grieved and also moved on with their lives, however reluctantly. That's before the MA828 passengers start hearing voices and getting steered by unseen forces. Whatever happened is a miracle, but what sort of miracle? How did the plane disappear? How did they reappear? Why this plane and these people? And once they've returned, are they meant for a higher purpose? Or a Higher Purpose?

If the premise makes you think of Lost or, more likely, of at least 15 or 20 knockoffs of Lost that premiered in the decade after it, you're not alone. Manifest feels very much like a script that was once sitting at an airplane gate with the script for The Event, both heading for NBC. Manifest took a voucher and went on a different flight and stepped off eight years later only to discover that The Event had already aired and been hastily canceled. Now Manifest must face a world in which shows like Manifest are rarely successful and audiences know to be concerned about shows that wear their mysterious hearts so consciously on their sleeves, because the bigger the introduced mystery, the seemingly more inevitable the frustration.

If The Leftovers played like a thinking person's version of the Left Behind series, the pilot of Manifest plays like a tentative person's version — like as close as broadcast TV is likely to let anybody not named "Mark Burnett" go when it comes to a religiously inflected thriller. In what way? Well, as was the case with Lost, there are numbers that are mighty important to the story of Manifest, only there's really only one number and it is variations of "828," and part of that relates to Michaela and Ben's mother's favorite Bible verse, which happens to be Romans 8:28, a motto she loves so much she has a throw pillow inscribed "All Things Work Together for Good."

So you have a show in which a New Testament quote is front-and-center, yet it's only a fragment from the actual verse, excluding "to them that love God." My own instinct on these things is that if you're going to go Christian, go Christian. Don't work in shades of gray. Part of why Fox's above-average series take on The Exorcist was above average is that it recognized that it had to be genuinely invested in its Catholicism, not just a show with a couple demon hunters in collars. The audience that's probably the target demo for Manifest loves being pandered to, and the audience that starts getting antsy when characters go and have generic and poorly staged conversations with priests in empty churches — "How do we know if we're the called?" "We know in our heart" — may check out fast here anyway.

My concern is that what is presented as being a unequivocally Christian force in the pilot only looks that way because the show's point-of-entry characters are Christian and that the other 180-plus passengers are going to be experiencing manifestations relating to their own fuzzy sense of the divine. That's where the show goes from desperate-to-be-inoffensively-vague to unimaginatively wishy-washy. As a viewer who prefers authenticity and specificity, the pilot to Manifest is light on both.

This is part of why I'd always rather have multiple episodes to review off of, because all I can speculate based on the pilot is that either none of the characters on that airplane are interesting or else the pilot made a huge mistake in terms of which characters to lead with. The Stones are, simply, dull. They're very pretty, mind you. And they're very earnest. Watching Dallas here, you'd never know he was convincingly charming enough to play Prince Charming on a TV show (Once Upon a Time). If you're a TV critic, you'll be relieved that Roxburgh is less hilariously miscast than she was on The CW's Valor, though the pilot can't figure out how to make her at all convincing as a tough-as-nails cop, nor is there even a hint of a spark in Michaela's time-thwarted romance with J.R. Ramirez's Jared. The most fruitful instant dynamic could perhaps be between Cal and Olivia — I know the "twins now suddenly separated in age" thing works because the fantastic French semi-zombie drama Les Revenants did it — but their pilot interaction is negligible.

Make no mistake, Manifest has a decent enough hook, and NBC making the first 10 minutes available online way early was smart, since the David Frankel-directed opening gets to the premise fast and speaks to all sorts of resonant fears and uncertainties — be they from Lost or from a real world in which Malaysia Airlines 370 remains an unsolved disappearance. It's where the pilot goes from there and then a lack of subsequent episodes to review that leaves me with more than a few doubts. Maybe we'll meet all of the cool characters and the complicated narrative twists in the second episode? Like many TV fans, I've been burned too many times to have much faith in that.

Cast: Melissa Roxburgh, Josh Dallas, Athena Karkanis, J.R. Ramirez, Luna Blaise, Jack Messina, Parveen Kaur
Creator: Jeff Rake
Premieres: Monday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)