NBC's Manifest arrived on US television on Monday night, riding atop a wave of exciting advance press. It's a mystery-based show — not unlike some shows before it like, say, Lost on ABC, The 4400 on CBS, or The Crossing from ABC. For the record, Lost is the only one of those shows to escape critical wrath. Both The Crossing and The 4400 were canceled before the central mystery of the show really unfurled. (Although: Did Lost's central mystery ever really unfurl? Talk to me after class.) Lost survived because it had narrative confidence, enough to keep us following the story for several seasons, awaiting the answers to the many, many questions the show raised.
Manifest may not have that capability. The show is similar to Lost in many ways, but it doesn't have (or it hasn't yet shown) the kind of sure-footed narrative that Damon Lindelof's mystery had. What it does have are a few narrative similarities and one giant marketing ploy. Manifest is mostly like Lost because NBC wants it to be the next Lost, something that networks have wanted since Lost premiered.
Remember: Lost anticipated the era of prestige TV. It cornered the market in "mysterious" TV, capturing the audiences who already loved 24 and, even earlier, The Twilight Zone. The first season averaged 18 million viewers per episode, which is about what The Big Bang Theory does today. The pilot earned J.J. Abrams an Emmy for directing, and the show went on to have six mostly successful seasons. For a network television show, Lost did well.
Now, there's Manifest. The series premiere garnered roughly 10 million viewers. It took the second spot in terms of Monday's TV lineup, right behind The Big Bang Theory. It could be the next Lost. It has that potential. Here's why.
There's a plane.
We love a plane device, don't we? Where Lost featured a plane crash, Manifest featured a plane...warp? The plane, Montego Air Flight 828, experiences some rough turbulence on the way back from Jamaica, and then — blam! — the plane has puddlejumped five years into the future. Bet you didn't know airlines could do that, huh?
Unlike Lost, Manifest has a few more immediate questions to answer. The passengers in the plane immediately get dropped off in NYC once more, where they greet their family members (who have all aged five years). Their families can answer questions like, who is the president? Are people still using iPods? What about FourLoko? And, er, what's an e-cigarette?
Unfortunately for us, Manifest doesn't get to the broader cultural questions, instead delving into the familial questions first. Questions like, does Michaela's (Melissa Foxborough) boyfriend (Jessica Jones's J.R. Ramirez) still want to marry her? And what about Cal (Jack Messina), the kid who had cancer on the plane? Is he still sick?
Welp, all these strangers have to be friends now.
Part of what made Lost succeed is that it forced characters who wouldn't have otherwise interacted to become allies. The show's best scenes came from the unlikely duos like Kate (Evangeline Lily) and Sawyer (Josh Holloway) or Sayid (Naveen Andrews) and Shannon (Maggie Grace). As the narrative expanded into the island itself, these interactions grew more and more complicated, adding semi-villains and some not-to-be-trusted know-it-alls to the mix.
For Manifest, things look a little cozier. The fact is — and this may be a spoiler — the passengers of flight 828 emerged with the ability to foresee tragic events. In the pilot, Michaela stops a bus from killing a kid. Later, she and Ben discover two children who have been kidnapped and locked in a shed. Turns out, all the passengers on the plane have this ability. By the end of the pilot, they're all gathered around the plane, the Montego Bay, like confused ducklings looking for answers. Then, er, the plane explodes. So much for finding answers there.
Later, the episode's narrator (Michaela, for now) explains, these people will come to know each other very well. They will become friends, and maybe they'll fight crime together!
Dear NBC, please don't make this show into a procedural.
There is a kid in danger.
Remember Walt (Malcolm David Kelly)? He was Michael Dawson's (Harrold Perrineau) kid on Lost, and the Others took poor Walt, leading Michael down a dark quest for revenge. This is...maybe not where Manifest is going, but there is a central heartstring-tugging narrative featuring a kid with cancer. Cal Stone, son to Ben and Grace (Athena Karkanis), has a cancer diagnosis, one that didn't look great in 2013. But hey, now it's 2018, and Saanvi (Parveen Kaur) has developed a new stem cell treatment that is actually helping kids with the same disease. (The show doesn't get specific about his diagnosis, but Saanvi describes him as "all but terminal.")
The problem is, only kids who have been diagnosed recently qualify for the treatment. Saanvi uses her newfound confidence — gifted by the plane crash? — to ensure that Cal gets treatment.
Have you heard of the Bible?
Have you? Did you know that the season 1 finale of Lost was titled "Exodus Part 1" and "Exodus Part 2"? Or that certain episodes were named after Bible verses? The Bible has some rich codes, and it's a good go-to if you're looking to craft a tricky narrative.
Enter: Flight 828! Conveniently, in Manifest, Michaela spots a Bible verse sewn onto a pillow and does the math herself. Romans 8:28 features the following verse:
"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."
Or some variant on that phrase. This is way more explicit than any biblical reference in Lost, by the way. Lost never went so far as to show us the two numbers side by side. (The number 828 also shows up on Manifest on the home where the two girls are being held captive.) This is very deliberate, and almost dangerously so. Did Manifest just give away what happened? Because this feels like God maybe plucked flight 828 out of the air and then inserted it into 2018 just so he could manifest (ha) some miracles. In this way, Manifest could be more like God Friended Me, the CBS sitcom about God literally sending a friend request on Facebook to a less-than-engaged human. Or, if we really want to expand our comparisons, the show may start to resemble The OA, which featured a woman who said she was a literal angel.
The main character(s) are hiding dark secrets.
Part of Lost's deal was that the characters on the island all had significant baggage. Sawyer was a con man. Kate was a fugitive from the law. In Manifest's case, Michaela — the narrator and the likely protagonist for the rest of the season — left 2013 having been suspended from her job as police officer. She was relegated to desk work after Evie (a character who wasn't introduced) died in her squad car. Michaela seems to think that this is a second chance for her. She'll fix things with her fiancé Jared, and she'll find redemption following Evie's death.
Other characters reiterate this theory. Saanvi is convinced that she returned so that she can do more research to save the lives of more children.
Okay, if we're going with the theory that Lost took place entirely in some sort of purgatory, then maybe Manifest is doing something similar: These characters did die, but they had unfinished business on Earth. Business like...saving kids! Like the one kid in front of the bus! Or Cal Stone, the kid whose cancer diagnosis might get better with the help of Saanvi's research.
But how is it not like Lost?
Well, a lot of ways. Manifest doesn't happen on an island. It's way more forthcoming with its information — we find out about an engagement, an affair, some stem cell research, and a kidnapping all in the first episode. It's rooted in the present, literally in 2018, which means that it's going to have to grapple with a semblance of current events.
Most importantly, Manifest is operating under drastically different terms. TV has never been more competitive, with everyone from Apple to Facebook to even Instagram churning out content. Maybe it pushed out all that information too quickly because it knew that it had all of 15 minutes before we shut the TV off and returned to that new John Krasinski show. It's way more deliberate with is allusions and connections — it practically whacks you over the head with the Gutenberg Bible. There's also the sense that this mystery is going to be solved at least a little faster than things happened on Lost. The pacing is at warp speed, summarising and solving problems as soon as they occur. Moments after Ben and Michaela fight about their newfound power, they use it to rescue the children — what's that? This show moves fast.
Although, hey, Montego Bay Flight 828 did explode at the end of the episode. Unless there are some rogue tail enders somewhere, the answer to a lot of questions just... disappeared.