Manifest has a killer premise and serious ambitions, but its slow-burn mysteries might not thrill audiences enough to see those ambitions fulfilled.
Manifest, NBC’s new fall drama, has a decent-enough premise: On April 7, 2013, the passengers of Montego Air Flight 828 hit a rough patch of turbulence and disembark to find that five and a half years have elapsed in the meantime. And yes, I know, it sounds very much like Lost, but I’m hesitant to refer to the show as the new Lost, as shows which claim to be the new Lost tend to actually become lost, and very quickly.
That’s a point, actually. Manifest is quite clearly designed to be a slow-burning mystery that unfolds gradually over multiple seasons. But is it going to get multiple seasons in the fickle television climate of 2018? I doubt it, and the show’s premiere didn’t do nearly enough to convince me – or, I’m assuming, anyone else – that it has much to offer we haven’t seen before.
Again, and as always, it isn’t so much whether you’ve seen it before, but whether you want to see it again in this particular way. That’s where Manifest struggles. The premiere primarily follows Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh) and her brother Ben (Josh Dallas), a happily married father of twins, one of whom has leukaemia. But beyond some clever details in how the various passengers try to resume their previous lives after being presumed dead for half a decade, the show’s attempts to build a mystery and a mythology just feel a little too familiar. Odd, vaguely supernatural abilities begin to manifest in the survivors, but since no time was devoted to their lives before the flight, it’s much more interesting to watch them renegotiate their careers and relationships. The trouble is that likely won’t keep people watching.
What people tend to forget is that Lost emerged in a pre-Netflix TV landscape in which binge-watching meant waiting for the DVD box-set to be released. You had to cut off all your friends and family and colleagues because they were tuning in each week and discussing juicy spoilers around the office water cooler. It was a nightmare. Manifest has no such advantage. Being tight-lipped about its mysteries won’t do it any favours; people will just stop watching and get their slow-burn dramas in a more easily-accessible format.
So Manifest needs weird happenings and cliffhangers and whatever else to maintain a viewership, but what’s cool about the premise is how it impacts the various characters and their lives – which the show can’t afford to devote too much time to. I have no idea what Manifest is going to look like week to week, of course, but looking like it does in the premiere won’t be enough. The question is whether it’ll have the luxury of telling the story it wants to, or if it’ll devolve, like Lost did, into a series of madcap plot developments designed entirely to keep people tuned in. Time will tell.