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My Complicated Relationship with 'Manifest'

By Dustin Rowles | TV | April 16, 2021 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | April 16, 2021 |


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Pajiba has been around now for 17 years, and as some of you may remember, our earliest tagline was “Scathing Reviews for Bitchy People.” When we get a little ranty in our reviews, some old-school commenters will often say, “Oh, this reminds me of the Scathing Reviews, Bitchy People days!” In some ways, that feels like a compliment. Many of you may also know that the tone and direction of the site has evolved considerably over the years, and much of that had to do with learning and evolving by listening to our readers, our own writers, as we have grown and diversified.

The “bitchiness,” however, faded considerably after 2012 when I had the miracle twins — I had no anger left within me. I was too grateful to spend time belittling movies, and besides, there were fewer movies that outright deserved excoriating (Big Momma’s House and Grown Ups and Kevin James films and Norbit don’t make $100 million at the box office anymore).

However, some of that old spirit has returned in recent years with the Manifest recaps. They’ve been fun to write, and I’ll admit that I’ve continued to do them only because a lot of people have egged me on. Sometimes, they’re mean and maybe even cruel, and for various personal and professional reasons, I’ve started to reassess what that means, too. Don’t get me wrong: My favorite critic is probably Walter Chaw, and that guy can be downright vicious, brilliantly so, but what does it mean to shred apart another person’s efforts without at least considering the people behind the work?

Years ago, over on Uproxx, someone told me to, “Write as though the people you are writing about are reading it.” Uproxx is a big enough site that that makes sense because chances are, they are occasionally reading. A colleague of mine over on Uproxx also stopped critiquing SNL weekly because after visiting the set a few times and interviewing a number of the cast members and understanding what went into each show, it didn’t feel right to him to shit on their hard work anymore.

I get that. I totally get that, and over the years, I’ve made friends with a number of creators, and whether they make good work or not-so-good work, they’re still the same wonderful people. Making a bad movie does not make you a lesser person (see, e.g., Melissa McCarthy’s output with Ben Falcone!). It’s important, as reviewers, to be honest, but I think it’s also OK to make some consideration for the people involved.

A few years ago, my wife and kids converted to Judaism, and while I haven’t done so officially yet because of COVID and because I am very self-conscious about speaking in Hebrew, I participate as though I have. The big thing about Judaism, however, is putting good out in the world, not because it will get you into heaven or to avoid hell (these concepts do not exist in Judaism), but because it’s the right thing to do. I want so very badly to be a good person. I want to be honest, but I don’t want to be an asshole to people who don’t deserve it.

This brings me back to Manifest. For whatever reason, these damn Manifest recaps can sometimes be stupidly popular, but they’re also sort of a throwback to both the Scathing Reviews era and the Television without Pity era (although, obviously not nearly as good or comprehensive). My Manifest recaps, meanwhile, have probably inspired more hate mail than any other thing I’ve ever written about. But unlike Uproxx, because we’re called “Pajiba,” I always liked to live under the false delusion that no one involved in the content we critique actually reads our stuff. It’s a made-up word! Why would anyone take us seriously?

That’s not always the case, however. Directors, actors, and writers engage with us fairly frequently. Believe it or not, more than a few people involved with Manifest have also reached out. In a couple of cases, it was to say that they liked the recaps, and in other cases, it’s just to let me know that they’re reading them. Let me be perfectly clear, however: No one from the show has asked me to stop writing them or dial it down and no one involved with the show has ever had an ill word to say (the show’s fans, on the other hand …). But I also think that it’s time for me to apply that Uproxx rule to Pajiba: Write as though the people you are writing about are reading.

Does that mean being less honest? No. When it comes to Manifest, however, I’m not so sure. Is it really the worst show on TV? It clearly has a lot of fans — some of whom have actually reached out on old photos of my kids on Instagram to let me know what they think of my recaps! — who don’t think so. Is the show hurting anyone? Is it racist? Or bigoted? Or does it advocate for politically unsavory things? No. I just enjoy making fun of it, because sometimes (or a lot of times), it can be impossibly absurd.

I don’t know that that will stop, either. But I think that it’s important to also acknowledge the effort that goes into an episode of the show and, more importantly, to acknowledge that while I don’t always like it, much of what the writers and actors are doing is intentional. There are some talented actors — Daryl Edwards, Elisabeth Marvel, to name two — who are acting in a way to match the specific tone being called for in Manifest. It’s like a daytime soap opera combined with sci-fi. It’s not my thing, but some folks appreciate it. I still think they make some of it up as they go along, but that’s true of a lot of serialized dramas. I would also like to acknowledge that — as much as sh*t as I give the writers — a number of them, including the creator, have actually written on shows that I do like. Manifest is not one of them, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not intentionally catering to a certain audience that I simply do not belong to.

This is not an apology, exactly. I think what I’m trying to say here is that I don’t want to be a bully. In comedy, it’s always about punching up, and when you think of a big NBC drama with three seasons under its belt, it’s easy to believe that you are punching up. But when you consider the individuals who work on the show, it’s much less clear.

Again, I want to put good in the world. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop writing about Manifest, and it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be less honest, but it does mean that I’m going to try and not say anything about the show that I wouldn’t say directly to the people involved with it.

Meanwhile, all I’m going to say about this week’s episode is that I can’t believe that the meth heads are now so heavily involved in the storyline, or that other characters continue to refer to them simply as “the meth heads.” Intentional or not, it is hilarious.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.



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