When I jotted out my list of the TV season's Best New Shows, ABC's "FlashForward" came in at No. 3 and I felt like that placement might even have been generous. But if I were to have listed the shows I was most interested in seeing additional episodes for, "FlashForward" would soar to the very top.
The David Goyer directed pilot for "FlashForward" is intriguingly and maddeningly uneven, opening with 17 minutes that rival any pilot since "Lost," spinning its wheels for nearly 25 minutes and then closing with a wallop.
Those opening acts, already made available online by ABC in an attempt to stir interest as well as curb piracy of the pilot, will probably be enough to hook any fan of complicated mythology-driven TV. Those next 25 minutes will probably be enough scare off any casual viewer just interested in killing time before "Grey's Anatomy."
That's probably what Goyer and fellow executive producers Brannon Braga, Marc Guggenheim and Jessika Borsiczky want. "FlashForward" doesn't appear to be designed for in-and-out samplers. You're either in all the way or you're out and you'll probably know for sure by the time the kangaroo hops across the screen.
[Full review of "FlashForward" after the break...]
This summer at the TCA press tour, I was sitting next to a couple critics who got annoyed when multiple questions to the "FlashForward" panel addressed it as if it were the heir apparent to "Lost" (which ABC most hope, with "Lost" only a season away from its [sniffle] end).
For a while at least, the shoe fits...
"FlashForward," like "Lost," opens on our hero (Joseph Fiennes as FBI Agent Mark Benford) regaining consciousness in a tight close-up. He hauls himself from a pile of wreckage and sees that a horrible cataclysm has taken place, that people are panicking and destruction is everywhere. Then, we flash back (or FlashBack).
What happens, as we'll soon discover, is that every person in the entire world blacked out for 2 minutes and 17 seconds. That's bad news for people driving, flying or even standing near pointy objects at the time of the blackout, which explains why, when Agent Benford comes to, cars are wrapped around posts, helicopters are falling out of the sky and people are scurrying around on fire.
What's more confusing is what happened while everybody was out. People had flashes, clear flashes, of an event, but not an event from their past, an event from their future, specifically from April 29, 2010. Yes, that happens to be a Thursday night, the first Thursday night of May sweeps, so expect ABC and "FlashForward" to have some big plans for that night, should the series stick.
What did people see? Well, some saw banal things, mostly got a few sports scores from the newspaper they were reading (which will be useful in Vegas, assuming bookies don't close the lines for that day). For others, though, the visions were more specific and more important. They showed pregnancies, infidelities and things which, practically, seem impossible. And some saw nothing at all.
So what do you do when you know the future? Do you try to prevent what you saw from happening? Do you try to actively force your future into being? Do you accept your own powerlessness? What does this future say about free will? About destiny? About the hand of God in steering our course?
Those are some philosophical questions. But what of the more nuts-and-bolts issues. How did the blackout and flashforward occur? Who was responsible? And why?
The first 17 minutes of "FlashForward," available for download, but really worth of being watched on your large TV screen, are terrifically efficient. I'd say they're the best directorial work of Goyer's career, but then you'd be all sarcastic and go "Wow, Dan. Even better than 'The Invisible'?" And I'd nod. And you'd say, "Even better than 'The Unborn'?" And I nod. And then I'd agree that we should probably just acknowledge that David Goyer, while adored in some fanboy circles and detested in other fanboy circles, has never really been a very good director.
But Goyer is a good director for a good chunk of "FlashForward." Cross-cutting with assurance, Goyer sets up the lives of at least seven or eight characters in the four hours leading up to the flash. It creates tension and also a foundation for the human dynamics that the producers hope will be as important to the story as the mystery. Yes. That was a joke. But I'm sure the producers hope the human dynamic is at least a tenth as important to viewers as the mythology.
We meet Mark and his doctor wife Olivia (Sonya Walger), sweetly in love, with a young daughter being babysat by a randy hottie (Peyton List). We meet Mark's partner Demetri (John Cho), on the verge of marriage himself. We learn that Mark is a recovering alcoholic and meet his AA sponsor Aaron (Brian F. O'Bryne). We meet Olivia's colleague Bryce (Zachary Knighton), disturbed and suicidal. And we do it in nine minutes, ever aware that something bad is coming.
The aftermath is standard apocalypse stuff, but well-handled. There are bodies everywhere, plumes of smoke rising from the LA skyline and general mass panic. There's some bad acting by a few of the extras, but not enough to distract you until you've seen the pilot as many times as I have.
Then, everything goes pear-shaped. First the FBI agents have to figure out all of the basics about the flashforward. Then, for nearly 20 minutes, one person after another carps about what they saw in their vision. With some of them we see snippets of the visions, others just narrate. They say a lot of things that viewers will already have figured out and make a lot of suggestions -- Let's set up a website for people to share their stories! -- that could have just been shown to us later, rather than announced. They set up some tension and introduce a few characters before closing with a cliffhanger that pulled me back in immediate and left me hungry for next week's episode.
"FlashForward" takes its title and a few character names from Robert J. Sawyer's novel, but little else. Sawyer's novel is speculative fiction, set largely in Switzerland, that makes a valiant stab at positing a way molecular physics could cause an event like this. The mystery involves the Large Hadron Collider and was a fun yarn without making any sense to this science-adverse reader.
With ABC's "FlashForward," I'm guessing the blackout wasn't just caused by a scientific experiment and its unexpected consequences. I'm thinking somebody was involved and they had a dark motivation and I'm also guessing it has something to do with Ben's flashforward, which is shot in fetishistic detail so that bloggers will be able to make screen captures and spend nine months trying to solve the puzzle.
The producers will be counting on the cast, which also includes Courtney B. Vance and, coming soon, Dominic Monaghan, to carry the human side of things and, for the pilot at least, there's general success.
My only worry on the casting front is Fiennes. In the past, I've been known to be harsh towards Joseph Fiennes. I'm sure I've probably even called him an awful actor from time to time. This is a falsehood. What he is, however, is a very, very limited actor and his availability for TV projects has something to do with film directors butting up against those limitations. He's an actor who can convey poetic yearning, but absolutely no intensity. I often wonder why TV casting directors are so star-struck by movie credits that they don't realize an actor without the range to carry a two-hour movie is going to be better suited for a TV role that might someday showcase 100 hours worth of developed emotions. We're only 44 minutes into "FlashForward" and Fiennes' flashforward -- he's drunk and obsessed with a cast and men are trying to kill him -- already asks more of the once-and-future Shakespeare than he's capable of. Because I'm prone to recasting shows, I kept watching Fiennes' role and thinking that if it were played by "Life" star Damian Lewis, you couldn't get me off the "FlashForward" bandwagon with a crowbar. Instead, we get scenes of Fiennes being acted into the ground by Tony winner O'Byrne. So it goes.
[Last note: Yes, that's Seth MacFarlane of "Family Guy" in the pilot. No. He doesn't add anything. Yes. He's a pointless distraction. It turns out he's a friend of Braga's. Since Braga will, for the most part, be devoting his attentions to "24" this fall, maybe MacFarlane can never be seen again. The kangaroo, however, should have a recurring role.]
As we all knew it would, this review has become long. "FlashForward" has ample potential coming out of a first episode that sets up more than 6 billion possible storylines. Assuming Goyer, Guggenheim and company don't feel the need to deal with 10 flashforwards in every episode and keep their eye on the big story, "FlashForward" should hold onto its place as one of the fall's better new shows.
"FlashForward" premieres on ABC at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 24.