Friday, October 9, 2009

Television Review: FlashFoward

There is an inherent problem with network serial television dramas. They aspire to the grandiose ambitions of movies, miniseries, and HBO shows. But, limited as they are by low budget, constant casting changes and an uncertain future, they are almost destined to fall far short of their goals. Twin Peaks, the original gotta-watch-every-week mystery drama, couldn't even sustain itself for two seasons, and throughout the nineties, most of these kinds of shows were episodic, stand-alone affairs like The X-Files. Only with the success of The Sopranos near the turn of the century led other networks to aspire to a more serial approach.

Serial dramas work for HBO, because they can afford to spend millions of dollars and months on end getting their series exactly right. Each season of The Sopranos, or The Wire, or any of their shows, contains self-enclosed character arcs and narratives. A season feels like a cohesive unit, moving toward an end, and not just a bunch of cliffhangers mashed together, or a soap opera that keeps spinning indefinitely without any sort of conclusion in sight.

Still, the networks feel compelled to try and imitate this success. At their best, with shows like Lost or 24, they partially succeed. Still, there hasn't been a single season of 24 that hasn't fallen prey to the mid-season doldrums, and Lost has its own issues that I will discuss below. The fact that networks are belabored by casting changes doesn't help their prospects of developing a unified stories. HBO, on the other hand, has the money to basically bribe the actors to stay.

All of this is a long way to preface the fact that FlashForward, ABC's new serial drama, has a hell of a lot of pitfalls to overcome, and the odds are decidedly against it.

Flashforward offers an intriguing premise. On a day just like any other, the entire world population loses consciousness for exactly two minutes and seventeen seconds. During this time, most people are subjected to visions, and it soon becomes clear that they have seen glimpses of their future. Whether this future is fated, or merely a possible destiny, is something with which the characters have to cope.

The show is clearly ABC's attempt to capitalize on the success of Lost. The central premise of both shows concerns a mystery that can never be revealed until the final episode, because then people would simply stop watching. This series even has a similar opening scene. Basically, FlashForward is begging for a comparison with Lost, it's older, more mature brother. I'm happy to oblige.

Lost, despite its flaws, is easily one of the most creative shows on television. However, it relies on the viewer to watch every week, and retain information, and this has no doubt led to a decline in its ratings. At its best, in its first season, the show was able to compellingly integrate a few intriguing mysteries, a unique setting, and some well-written, well-acted characters. At its worst (in just about every other season since), the show's characters have devolved into flimsy parodies of their former selves, and the emphasis has been placed on meaningless enigmas, hollow cliffhangers, and a nonsensical background story. The show has lost direction, which isn't surprising, because (despite what Lost's gullible sycophants will try and tell you), the creators have been making up the story as they go along.

You can see why I am skeptical when the writers of FlashForward claim that they have a five year outline of the show's plot. Like Lost, FlashForward is trying to be a self-encapsulated unit, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Still, it's hard to achieve this when the show is limited to one hour-long episode a week.

The main problem is, despite the initial draw of the concept, FlashForward hasn't fashioned any sort of plot or characters to go along with it. The premise is fascinating, and as the audience learns more about what different characters have seen in the future, the mystery surrounding this event becomes more and more engaging.

But FlashForward is making the same mistake as Lost does at its worst - a television series cannot live on mystery alone. The actual plot, so far as there is one, revolves around a team of FBI agents who have assigned themselves to unravel the nature of the blackouts. As they try and piece together a mosaic of the future by creating an amalgamation of the world's visions, they begin to suspect that this catastrophe might have been caused by some sinister organization.

Again, the set-up is interesting, but the execution of the plot is strictly by-the-numbers crime drama, complete with car chases, agents shouting "Drop your weapon!", and the incompetent bureaucrat who gets in the agents' way. Ditto for the characters. While the visions they have seen are very interesting (one character knows she will cheat on her husband, another has seen his own death), the characters themselves are decidedly not. Most of them have two-word personalities that can be revealed by combining an adjective with a profession (compassionate doctor, snarky sidekick). We know what may or may not be fated for these characters, but it's hard to care when they are so flat and lifeless. This might be remedied as the show continues, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of set-up to work with.

Not only that, the characters take themselves so seriously. Granted, a worldwide blackout would be a serious event, but none of the actors have the gravitas to convince me that it is a serious event. A suspension of disbelief is pretty much required for a show like this, but if I'm going to have a character demand "WHAT DID YOU SEE?" in a desperate, raspy voice, he needs to at least put some effort into it so it doesn't sound completely ridiculous. The second episode remedies this slightly with the introduction of characters that are somewhat skeptical of the whole event. Not to belabor the Lost comparison too much, but at least on that show, for every time a character says the phrase "smoke monster" with a straight face, there's another who scoffs or who indicates that the whole premise is absurd. A show like this needs to be self-aware enough to acknowledge it's own absurdity. FlashForward does not quite accomplish this.

There's still a little promise, however. There are hints that the show intends to follow up on its more far-out science-fiction elements, addressing the nature of causation, and the relationship between free will and determinism. At least, I think that's where this show is going. If not, the writers have got some awfully big plot holes to cover, because most of what's going on reeks of self-fulfilling prophecy.

After doing some research (read: Wikipedia), it appears that FlashForward was originally marketed to HBO, and rejected. In a way, this is a shame. With a little sprucing up, there's a decent premise underneath all this. It makes me wonder how the writers intend to stretch this out episode by episode for five years, coping with the inevitable casting changes and network control. There's a premise here, but as of yet no plot or characters that I would want to follow for five years toward an endpoint that may or may not provide any sort of catharsis. This sort of thing should have been a miniseries, giving the writers enough time to explore the premise while still maintaining a unified story.

Instead, well, I'm not exactly sure what this show is. Only time will tell. I'll probably keep watching FlashForward on Hulu for the next few episodes, whenever I have an hour to spare. I have enough of a soft spot for campy science-fiction for me to not completely dismiss it, and it's possible some more interesting ideas will bubble to the surface. Still, for an average TV viewer, I'm fairly certain that you can skip this one. If you really have the hankering to watch a ridiculous mystery show that places intrigue over plot or characters, you can always watch Lost.