For those of you who have been reading the site since the aughts, I suspect you’ve noticed that I’ve become a more forgiving reviewer. I am easier to please. I am more apt to give into the emotionally manipulative whims of television and movies. I’m not sure why exactly this is true, but entertainment has to be aggressively awful to trigger, at least in me, the old “scathing reviews, bitchy people” tagline mentality upon which this site was originally built. I’m still discerning, mind you, but with the political and social climate surrounding us, a television show has to be unusually awful to ignite my hostilities.
Manifest is that unusually awful series. Interestingly, more than any other show I write about, it’s Manifest that also elicits the most email responses, many of which are along the lines of, “If you hate this show so much, why do you keep watching?” Honestly, because I feel a strange moral obligation to call out this show in particular. This is not an obscure cable program that no one watches, nor is it a dumb laugh-track sitcom that viewers plop down in front of for 22 minutes after removing their brain. Manifest is one of the highest-rated dramas on television because, for some reason, viewers have not woken up to how aggressively incompetent it is as a drama. Shows like this should not be rewarded with more viewers than a meticulously plotted, perfectly written series like Better Call Saul.
And look: I’ve watched a lot of bad Lost clones, or at least enough to know how bad they are — FlashForward,The Event, Alcatraz, V, Threshold — and part of the reason why they fail is their inability to create compelling characters or build intriguing mythology. What’s so fascinating about Manifest is how very little it even tries. There’s no world building. There is no mythology. It’s a cat-and-mouse series built upon a premise the writers have no idea how to explain. It’s not bad Lost. It’s bad Rambaldi without any of the interesting or compelling characters of Alias. It is one of the most singularly awful television series I have ever watched. It’s eight filler episodes stacked upon a conceit that at one point had a modicum of potential. There was a feel-good element that it never bothered to scratch; there’s alien technology possibilities; there’s government conspiracy, or the paranormal, or even the afterlife. But all that Manifest wants to do is to make it to the end of each episode and worry about the next episode the following week. They wrote themselves into a corner in the second episode and they keep digging and digging and digging deeper into the hole, but no one ever thinks to climb out.
After nine long episodes, here’s what we know after the fall finale: A plane, Flight 828, took off and landed five and a half years later. The people on the flight now have a strange telepathic connection. A corporation that makes razor blades and cereal is trying to exploit that telepathic connection. The people on the flight are trying to stop the corporation from experimenting on a subset of passengers because those torturous experiments also hurt them. The people on that flight also hear voices — or callings — that sometimes tell them what to do, and every once in a while, those callings help them solve a crime.
Note what the series has not done in any meaningful way: Explore the origins of the time jump, or try to determine where the calling is coming from. All the characters do is react. The entire fall finale is devoted to finding the secret lair where the experiments are being conducted on passengers, basically following through on a storyline that has encompassed the last three or four episodes, and which leaves us no closer to understanding anything than we were four episodes ago. Or six episodes ago. Or eight episodes ago. At the end of the episode, they find the lab. The passengers are rescued. Some people die, including allegedly, NSA Director Vance (who is totally not dead). Some people survive. The end. (There’s also some relationship drama that literally no one cares about).
That’s it. We’re basically back to square one, save for finding out that one passenger was working in cahoots with the corporation, although if the last eight episodes are any indication, that character will vanish by episode 11 and never be spoken of again. Just like the “crucial” body of the woman who was killed by her housekeeper. Or the Jamaican stowaway. Or the guy who kept predicting people’s deaths. Or Carlos, the kid who now has the heart of Michaela’s best friend. Or, apparently, Jared’s wife.
In the meantime, I sincerely hope the writers take the fall break to figure out what it is they want this show to be about, what they’re trying to say, where they’re taking us, and how to inject some personality into it. If this series improves in the back half, I will be happy to acknowledge it, but if it does not, I will not stop returning to this space every single week to talk about how badly it continues to spin its wheels.
Header Image Source: NBC