You never know what will hit big in the television landscape. If someone told HBO in 2008 that ten years down the line, a show about dragons would be the biggest series they ever created, chances are they wouldn’t have believed you. Did anyone at Fox know that in 1986, a little cartoon about about a dingbat nuclear safety inspector and his family would not only put them on the map, but still be running in the next century? This year, the surprise breakout hit no one saw coming is on NBC. It’s called “Manifest,” a show that is basically a conglomerate of several other popular shows past and present, with dialogue so wooden it’s a wonder the actors don’t get splinters in their mouths while talking.
And yet, as of this writing, it is one of the top five most watched broadcast shows for fall 2018, the fourth most popular scripted broadcast show on TV currently and the most popular new scripted series this season, according to Nielsen’s household ratings metric. It’s also better than it has any right to be on paper, which may account for why so many are tuning in.
This year, the surprise breakout hit no one saw coming is on NBC. It’s called “Manifest,” a show that is basically a conglomerate of several other popular shows past and present.
Much like “Lost,” which ran on neighboring ABC from 2004-2010, the show’s plot has to do with a plane (Flight 828) that disappears and then reappears five years later. Except instead of spending five seasons on an abandoned island, the pilot episode shows the airplane taking off in April of 2013 and landing three hours later in November of 2018 in the first ten minutes. The passengers, who were all assumed to be dead, cannot account for their missing years.
The result is a premise that seems to have been pitched as “what if ‘Lost,’ but ‘Found?’” It’s not a bad idea. “Lost” wasn’t concerned with what would happen to its characters if they ever did get return to civilization. But by starting the series with the characters arriving back home, the mystery of what happened to the plane in "Manifest" is bolstered by the complicated mini-dramas of families and friends dealing with reunions after years apart and the general aftermath of lives that disappeared in the space of a single airplane ride.
So far, the show has mostly focused on one extended family, the Stones. Ben Stone (Josh Dallas) and his son Cal (Jack Messina) were bumped back to Flight 828 but his wife Grace (Athena Karkanis) and daughter Olive (Luna Blaise) were on the original flight which left just hours before. Their struggle to figure out how and if they can be a family again creates a “This Is Us”-style drama — tears included. Meanwhile, Ben’s sister Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh), who was also bumped back to Flight 828, works for the NYPD. She returns to find her fiancé Jared (J.R. Ramirez) has married her best friend after Michaela was declared dead. Michaela goes back to work, only to find her crime solving skills aided by mysterious abilities she gained while on Flight 828, leading to interludes that echo “Law & Order.”
Another passenger, Dr. Saanvi Bahl (Parveen Kaur) was researching cancer cures but in the intervening five years said research was discovered to be a breakthrough cure. The Stones’ son Cal has exactly the kind of cancer Saanvi has figured out to cure (natch!), giving the series leave to turn also into a better version of “New Amsterdam” for scenes at a time.
In all, “Manifest” is five shows in one: a “Lost” mystery, a police procedural, a family drama, a medical hero show and a government conspiracy story, all tucked into a neat 44 minutes of runtime.
Overlaid on top of all of this is the mystery of what happened to Flight 828, and why some of the passengers are having psychic episodes, an investigation spearheaded by NSA Director Vance (Daryl Edwards) and his Deputy Powell (Tim Moriarty). Whether this is all an inside government plot remains to be seen, a wrinkle that produces a real “X-Files” vibe and has spawned obsessive Reddit threads. (My own personal theory is that the plane must have traveled to an alternative reality 2018, because not a single person has mentioned Trump being president yet, which seems like an impossible writer oversight.)
All in all, “Manifest” is five shows in one: a “Lost” mystery, a police procedural, a family drama, a medical hero show and a government conspiracy story, all tucked into a neat 44 minutes of runtime on Monday nights.
Speaking of Trump and politics, the one truly sour note of the show is its refusal to deal with America’s changed political and cultural landscape of the last five years. It is not an exaggeration to say society has changed drastically since April of 2013, when, for example, gay marriage was still illegal in many states and social media was still considered fun and good. But “Manifest” isn’t interested in delving into anything that relevant. It clearly believes itself to be an escapist show and has therefore banned politics from the proceedings.
To be fair, one could do that on “Lost” and get away with it. Everyone was, after all, on an island. But to have 191 passengers, most of whom are New York City residents, appear unfazed by the sociopolitical landscape they are dropped back into is perhaps the most unbelievable plot point of all.
Instead, “Manifest” wants to be all shows to all people. In doing so, it has no time to dig deep into any of its many plot points. One could argue its success is proof this is what the people want. At least, until a few mysteries start getting solved. But if “Manifest” can follow in the footsteps of “This Is Us” and successfully reveal its answers without losing audience interest, NBC might have another hit to take the network through the end of the decade.