[This story contains spoilers from the series premiere of NBC’s Manifest.]
During Monday’s series premiere of NBC’s Manifest, Flight 828 re-emerged after going missing for more than five years. But that was just the start of the mystery for its passengers.
Siblings Ben (Josh Dallas) and Michaela Stone (Melissa Roxburgh) had a rocky reunion with their loved ones after years apart. In the time they were gone, their mother passed; Michaela’s almost-fiance, Jared (J.R. Ramirez), married her close friend; Ben’s daughter, Olive (Luna Blaise), grew up amid health struggles, though her sick twin, Cal (Jack Messina), remained the age he was when the plane departed; and Ben’s wife, Grace (Athena Karkanis), moved on — though he doesn’t know it yet.
But that wasn’t all: The duo — along with a handful of other passengers, including a doctor, Saanvi (Parveen Kaur), whose research could be the key to saving Cal’s life — heard mysterious warnings, which led to the group being drawn to the plane … as it exploded into flames.
For creator Jeff Rake (NBC’s The Mysteries of Laura), Manifest was a long time coming. Rake first conceived of the drama while on a family vacation a decade earlier. The idea was assembled, pitched out and dead within a month. “It was a different time in the TV landscape,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We were a little bit saturated with the serialized event mystery. And as a result … that structure was played out.”
Traditionally, once scripts have been passed over, they remain buried; however, the real-life tragedy of the still-missing Malaysia Airlines flight in 2014 caused Rake to think about the concept again.
“I was filled with the very real paranoia: ‘Are people going to remember this was an old idea? Are they going to think I’m just recycling and have run out of original stuff?'” he admits. “I decided to be quite open about it. I went in and pitched it to [Warner Bros. TV], and right away they were like, ‘No, that’s a really good idea and because of Malaysia Air feels relatable. And because of what it talks about, thematically, it feels very of the moment.’ They were right.”
Rake spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the tweaks to the show, the keys to crafting a successful serialized drama, and where his mystery thriller/soap goes from here.
What, if anything, did you adjust in your plans for the show between its initial conception and its eventual NBC life?
I’ve tried to lean a little more heavily into the underlying themes I think are kind of relevant to the world right now. The show is ultimately about the possibility of redemption. The possibility of a second chance, being able to explore inside of ourselves and figure out: “What would I change about myself, if I had the opportunity to do that?” And, also, hopefulness about the idea that maybe there’s something bigger than all of us. When so many people are on all sides of the political spectrum and are feeling a great sense of frustration about our lives in big and small ways, that maybe there is something bigger out there guiding us, that will allow us to be a better version of ourselves. I’m hopeful it’ll connect with a lot of people.
With a plane being a key part of your mystery, the Lost comparisons started from day one …
I’m a fan of Lost. My writers room, similarly, fans of Lost. Were it not for Lost, this show would not be on the air. I think of them as one of the founding fathers of the genre; I’m very much inspired by it. I learned a lot from the show, and I’d like to think our storytelling is inspired by it. Event mysteries have great upsides because they can be very tantalizing. And they also have challenges, because people often ask: “Can you keep up, can you maintain a serialized mystery, can you excite and mystify and compel your audience on an ongoing basis the way you did the first episode or the first season or first few seasons?” I think a lot about that. I know that Lost and other serialized mysteries, people hold up their magnifying glass, talking about what was great about those shows and where people felt those shows fell off along the way. … I do think I’ve had the benefit to look at the whole landscape of serialized mysteries and I’ve tried to learn from them. And hopefully, my show will be all the stronger because of having been able to watch and admire all the shows that came before me.
In the post-Lost world, a lot of shows came along trying to find that success — but didn’t seem to fundamentally understand why Lost was successful. What lessons did you take from those shows?
Some of the follow-up serialized mysteries post-Lost may not have succeeded as well [with] being able to follow up the fundamental obstacle of their premise pilot with an ongoing engine of conflict and drama for their core characters to deal with. I like to think that Manifest will succeed in that regard, because my premise is out there on the table five minutes into episode one: “Here are some returns, and everyone is back. Now what?” That’s when the mystery begins. Yes, the plane disappeared and returns, and we’ll hopefully spend many seasons figuring out where it went and why it was gone. But for my core characters, the obstacles they’ll face only start to begin in the days and weeks after they’ve returned. It has to do with the mystery of the plane, it has to do with some supernatural and inexplicable things that are happening to them, week in and week out. And that’ll be a very slow burn over the course of the series. It’s about their grounded lives. One thing I think our show has going for us, [is that unlike] some of the follow-up serialized mysteries that came after Lost, our show doesn’t live exclusively in the mythology of the show.
Because we’re dealing with grounded relationship drama and missions each week, it allows my mythology to burn at a very slow rate. That allows us to take our time and focus on the relatable and elements of our characters each week. We will find it much easier to sustain through the seasons as compared to other serialized mysteries that invested more completely in the unveiling of the mythology. That is much harder to sustain in my opinion, so we stand to have longevity. We’re not the first show to explore the theme of disappearance and return, but because we’re telling the story through a supernatural lens, it’s a new way to tell that story.
In addition to the survivors and the world wondering what happened to this plane, there’s a task force that is out to get answers. How will that investigation be woven into the story?
The show wants to live in more of a balance between the grounded relationships, the mythology of the show and the investigation. The shows are living about one-third [split] between the relationship drama, the investigation and the unveiling of the mythology. In terms of the investigation, the government agency that is running point is the NSA. The deputy director of the NSA continues to push forward looking for answers. We see at the end of episode one that there is a small subset of passengers on the plane that take on a higher profile when they show up at the airport in that final moment of the pilot and witness the plane’s explosion. As we get into episode two, we pick that up almost in real time and come to discover the 20 or so passengers, including our heroes, Ben and Michaela, are being focused on by the NSA. They were apprehended at the scene after the explosion, they’re all being interrogated, and now going forward, they and this small group of the passengers are in the crosshairs of the NSA. The screws tighten under the investigation, and Michaela and Ben find themselves under increased pressure.
There was an interesting scene in the pilot when Ben urged Michaela to keep quiet about the voices she was hearing, or else she could get locked up. How will they be handling the pressure of these post-return abnormalities, and how much of that scene was foreshadowing?
This compulsion to keep what’s happening to them a secret remains a driving force of our storytelling in the early episodes. It’s one of the fundamental dilemmas in the first batch of episodes for Ben and Michaela. They’re going to find it increasingly difficult to keep what’s happening to them under wraps. And yet, at the same time, the desire to keep things secret, even from their loved ones — in Ben’s case keeping a secret from his wife, Grace; in Michaela’s case, keeping a secret from her ex-boyfriend/nearly fiance, Jared, who becomes her de facto partner on the police beat — becomes incredibly problematic and threatens to tear apart these core relationships, even as they’re trying to re-establish the foundation of these relationships. As the inexplicable phenomenon becomes larger, all of this is going to come to a head. And by the time we’re three or four episodes down the road, there are going to be impossible ramifications, and this will come to a boiling point. And they’re each going to have to make a difficult choice, which will have ramifications in either of their lives.
The pilot primarily focused on the Stone family. Will this be more of a true ensemble piece or will each episode focus on a specific survivor?
Each episode is its own animal. Most episodes feature a passenger from the plane. The characters we met in the pilot, beyond our core family, those people feature more prominently in the early episodes. Saanvi, whose research we discover is pivotal in Cal’s recovery, continues to remain an important part of our story. And so, too, will other people: the flight attendant and the Jamaican musician will feature predominantly. The pilot of the flight, Captain Daly, will continue to be an important part of the series. And others take on varying degrees of importance in the early episodes. But our family, Ben and Michaela, that remains front and center throughout the series. We’ll always be telling stories through their point of view.
Looking to Saanvi’s research and medical expertise, outside of potentially saving Cal, how will that play into the overall mythology?
Saanvi is obviously a pivotal figure in Cal’s recovery. But more important than that, she becomes a partner, in essence, to Ben, in terms of searching for a grounded, scientific explanation for what is happening to the passengers. Saanvi and Ben analyze and ultimately endeavor to figure out what happened to all the passengers. That science-based investigation is driven by Saanvi in these episodes.
And just to clarify, the mystery of where they were and what happened during the five years the flight disappeared will be revealed at end of series?
That’s what we’re going to hold on to until the very end of series. That will be a very slow burn as we spend most of series focusing on other aspects of these people’s lives.
What did you think of Manifest?