Here's A Little Secret: "Manifest" Is Just A Faith-Based Procedural

Photo: Courtesy of NBC.
On Monday night’s episode of Manifest, NBC’s new anchor show, the overwhelming message was that “it’s all connected.” Literally: Ben (Josh Dallas), a central character on the show, kept hearing the phrase “it’s all connected” in his head. Later, he creates a corkboard that tries to make sense of all the “connections.”
“It’s like a giant spider web,” his sister Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh) mutters.
“And we’re all trapped in it,” Ben confirms.
It’s a redundant message, especially for a show with a massive central mystery. Of course it’s all connected! Surely, that’s why writers storyboarded the series. The deal with the connections, though, appears to be something more grand than just plain old plot. Manifest has been vaguely religious from the get-go, relying on one particular Biblical verse to rev the narrative engine. The verse in question, Romans 828, reads: “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.” The show’s main characters have all been affected by a missing plane dubbed Montego Air Flight 828. Manifest isn’t exactly subtle.
In fact, it feels like an explicit hybrid of Lost, Damon Lindelof’s revered ABC series, and This Is Us, NBC’s weeping willow of a show. Between those two, though, Manifest has managed to take the worst of both worlds: the moralistic undertone of This Is Us paired with the utter nonsense of Lost. The religion elements of it feel full-on preachy, and the science fiction ones essentially ignored. In its effort to peddle universally beloved fare, NBC has stumbled into something utterly airless: a faith-based procedural.
Created by Mysteries of Laura producer Jeff Rake, Manifest follows a group of passengers who experienced a leap through time during a particularly turbulent flight. They get on a plane, fly for a few hours, and then land five years in the future. When the passengers return to their normal lives, they suddenly experience “callings” — voices in their heads that provide grave and insistent instructions. In the first episode, main character Michaela is “called” to rescue two kidnapped girls. Later, the characters release an innocent man from prison and help locate a frightened stowaway. All of these rescues rely on the characters “having faith” in their callings.
“Still don’t believe in miracles?” Michaela tells an indignant Ben (Josh Dallas) in episode 3. When he refuses to discuss it, she says, “Why? Because then you’d have to admit that something miraculous is happening here?”
The obvious theory is that the characters are newly minted angels, a premise that has actually appeared on TV before. Touched by an Angel, which ran from 1994 - 2003, followed three angels as they worked to ensure people going through difficult times knew God loved them. More recently, CBS picked up God Friended Me, a comedy about a man befriended by the almighty via Facebook. He’s got similar issues to those of the passengers in Manifest: God is seemingly sending him on missions to help the world. On those shows, though, the religious aspects were in the foreground, set pieces around which the characters could navigate. Manifest’s religious material is quieter. Cloaked in science fiction and a Lost-ish plot, the faith-based themes feel like spinach baked into a brownie.
It’s also maybe the least riveting form of procedural. One Redditor called it Law and Order: This Is Us. Rake himself told SyFy that he was particularly proud of the This Is Us-like elements of the show. “When you watch a prototypical episode of Manifest, you will find that about half of the episode plays like a relationship drama,” he explained, adding that each episode will feature “closed-end cases,” much like a procedural would. The trouble with this formula is that, well, the crime solvers on Manifest aren’t doing any intellectual maneuvering. They are being spoonfed the answers via “callings.” A voice told Michaela where to seek out the two kidnapped girls. In Monday night’s episode, Ben’s son Cal (Jack Messina) led him to a dank subway hidey-hole where their stowaway Thomas was hiding. (They’d found him in a previous episode, then lost him again.)
There’s not much procedure to this procedural so much as there is faith. Every time the characters solve a problem, it’s because they’ve listened to the voices in their heads — they’ve had faith in their new calling. Ben, Michaela, and the rest of the passengers just have to trust their gut, and everything will work out fine. It’s all connected! Something miraculous is happening! Much like Adam Sandler did in that 2011 movie with Jennifer Aniston, Manifest wants you to just go with it.
At the end of Monday night’s episode, Manifest showed the first time a character received a calling. Cal, Ben’s son, woke up in the middle of the flight to see a bright light coming into the plane window. He lifted the shade, looked into the light, and muttered: “It’s all connected.” Rake told THR in an interview pegged to the episode that things being “connected” will be “thematic,” an interesting tautology. He added, “[It’s] also a pivotal plot point as we move to the next four episodes and beyond.”
Somewhere in the network TV formula, “everything is connected” became an acceptable theme on which to base your plot. This Is Us, a show connecting one sprawling family, soared in ratings. The Good Doctor, a saccharine show about believing in the power of people did, too. Twisty shows like Westworld earn accolades. Manifest tried to gather the best of all of them, and — poof! The work of an angel! — punctured its own vitality.
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