‘Manifest’: NBC’s High-Concept, ‘Lost’-Esque Series Has Ambition (Review)

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September 24th 2018

For better or worse, Lost made an impact on television as we know it today. While there have been similar series that have come and gone over the years that bear a striking resemblance, none have quite matched it like the high-concept new NBC series, Manifest.

Seemingly taking real-life inspiration from the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, Manifest revolves around a return flight from Montego Bay, Jamaica to New York City. While the people on the flight only flew a few hours and had a few minutes of extreme turbulence — someway, somehow, five years passed with their friends and family mourning their supposed deaths.

In a potentially star-making role for Canadian actress Melissa Roxburgh in her biggest stateside role to-date, it also stars Josh Dallas, Athena Karkanis, J.R. Ramirez, Parveen Kaur and Luna Blaise.

And while Manifest isn’t exactly perfect, it has a lot to say — and its premise is enough to keep you watching to find out what happens. 

Roxburgh and Dallas play siblings Ben and Michaela Stone, and the two, with Ben’s son, Jack, who has leukemia. Due to their original flight being overbooked, those three go on a later flight, Montego Air Flight 828. Ben’s wife, Grace, their daughter and Jack’s twin, Olive, and Ben and Michaela’s elderly parents take the regular flight, and thus go through five years while the passengers of Flight 828 are presumed dead. But they are in fact alive — and while they get a second chance at life, their former lives and the current lives of their loved ones are both upended.

With good reason given its breakout success, there are a lot of shows for this pilot season going for the This Is Us effect by relying on heavy emotion. Manifest tries to tap into this heavily.

Here are some things going on: Thinking she’s dead, Michaela’s fiance (J.R. Ramirez) moves on with her best friend after believing she was gone for good, Olive has grown up without her twin and father and Ben and Michaela’s mother has died — and this is just the start. While Lost and other series with similar plots dove into the science-fiction of it all, Manifest, at least for now, lends most of its action to personal and family dramas.

Roxburgh gives a solid performance, dealing with all of this situational grief.

But there is an ambitious, either supernatural or sci-fi element. Everyone on the flight has been seemingly “gifted” with intuition, voices inside their heads and/or a second eye that either hints at or shows them future happenings. The first encounter with the “inner voice” sees Michaela (a police officer in the midst of a scandal at the time the flight disappeared) rescue two girls who were kidnapped. Ben hears the voice too and soon, they realize all the passengers on the flight are having the same things happen to them.

There is a bit of a religious element here, but it doesn’t go too deep, probably because the stories and motivations of the other passengers will differ.

While there are a few loose ends that leave question marks after the pilot, it’s done in a way that should keep viewers interested based upon the premise alone. But we'll need to see more than just the Stone siblings and their family to keep interest, the show will have to explore the other passengers in great detail, maybe developing into an ensemble. Now that would be interesting. 

The show also can’t have an end-game that still toils in personal/family issues à la This is Us, nor can it serve as the new-age Touched by an Angel that is God Friended Me, another new Fall drama tinged with the feels of a religious entity or higher-being.

But what it can do is live up to its ambition, and deliver what the other dramas of similar stories haven’t done.

In interviews, Roxburgh and Dallas have joked maybe aliens are behind the voices and intuitions. Whatever it or they may be, if Manifest brings more of that, it can succeed.

Manifest premieres Monday, September 24 at 9 p.m. on NBC

by Trey Mangum on September 24th 2018
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