Manifest: Pilot

“How do you know if we’re ‘the called’?”
“We know in our heart.”

Montego Air Flight 828 takes off from Jamaica on the night of April 7, 2013 and lands safely, after three hours and nineteen minutes in the air, on the evening of November 4, 2018. Flight 828 has been missing, and all aboard presumed dead, for five years, six months, and twenty-eight days.

How did this happen? And, more importantly, for what purpose?

An intriguing mix of “Rip Van Winkle” and Lost, “Enoch Arden” and Person of Interest, This is Us and Early Edition, with maybe even a bit of Interstellar thrown in, Manifest uses its high-concept premise to explore complex ideas of fate, guilt, redemption, and faith. At the same time, it never forgets to be a story about people.

The particular people we meet at the beginning are police officer Michaela Stone and her extended family: parents Steve and Karen, brother Ben, his wife Grace, and their 9-year old fraternal twins Cal and Olive. They’re in the airport lounge in Jamaica at the end of a vacation, waiting to board the flight home.

As Michaela tells us in the opening narration, they look like a typical family enjoying a typical vacation--but there’s more going on beneath the surface.  Cal has leukemia, it’s not responding to treatment, and he doesn’t have long to live.  As for Michaela, she was in an auto accident in which someone died, leading to PTSD garnished with self-loathing.

Before going on the trip, Michaela turned down a marriage proposal from her boyfriend Jared, and while they’re waiting for the boarding call, her parents are gently nagging her to change her mind. Mom starts to quote her favorite Bible verse, Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.” Michaela cuts her off with a snippy “I don’t believe that anymore.”

When the gate agent announces that the flight is overbooked and offers $400 travel vouchers to those who volunteer for a later flight, Michaela jumps at the chance to get away from mom and the New Testament for a few hours. Ben also volunteers because the travel voucher will cover Cal’s next trip to the Mayo Clinic. Cal goes along with Ben.

That later flight is, of course, the ill-fated MA-828. Halfway to New York, the plane encounters an undetected “sudden weather surge” and gets bounced around. Lightening flashes, lights flicker, flight attendants are thrown off their feet, and luggage cascades out of the overhead compartments, one suitcase smashing a young woman’s laptop.

When the pilot contacts New York ATC to begin his final approach, an incredulous air traffic controller repeatedly asks him to identify himself and his plane, then diverts them away from their destination to another airport. Upon landing, they learn that it’s the year 2018.

The scenes that follow are where the show really shines, and really draws you in. At a point where most any other genre series would fire up the exposition machine and technobabble straight into the underlying mythology, Manifest takes some time to develop its characters. A lot has changed in five years: Karen has passed away, Olive is a teenager and towers over her twin brother, and Jared has gotten married to Michaela’s best friend Lourdes. The characters start to deal with the changes in emotionally honest scenes which are a perfect mix of joy and sadness and a whole lot of awkward.

On a visit to Cal’s oncologist, Ben and Grace learn that there is a new “game changing” treatment protocol for pediatric leukemia. Had Cal gotten on the earlier flight with his mother and sister, he would have died in late 2013—but here in 2018 he has an excellent chance of survival. If that wasn’t crazy enough, that new treatment protocol is based on research performed five years ago by another Flight 828 passenger, Saanvi, the woman whose laptop got clobbered by a falling suitcase.

Michaela begins hearing a voice inside her head--her own voice, no less--cryptically directing her to take actions that end up saving others’ lives. Ben is hearing the same sort of voices . . . and so are many of the other people from Flight 828. They’ve been brought back--called, one might say--to accomplish some larger purpose.

By the end of its first episode, Manifest has introduced us to complex, believable characters, induced us to care what happens to them, and set them on an interesting trajectory. It’s nothing if not ambitious, the sort of show that can succeed brilliantly so long as the writers and showrunners don’t plot themselves into a corner or tie the continuity up in knots.

Does Manifest know where it wants to go? Can it get there in a way that lives up to its premise, and promise? Only time will tell, but it’s off to a good start.

Also on the manifest…

You have no doubt already noticed that the flight number is the same three digits as the chapter and verse citation of Karen Stone’s favorite line in the Bible. The number 828 also shows up as a street address of a location important to the plot. Tune in again next time for more “828” sightings.

All too often, people with strong religious beliefs are portrayed in modern popular entertainment as either superstitious simpletons, narrowminded bigots, or blatant hypocrites. That doesn’t happen here: Manifest sees nothing contemptible or out of the ordinary in Karen Stone cross-stitching her favorite Bible verse into a throw pillow, or Michaela seeking counsel from the minister at the local church as she tries to figure out if Romans 8:28 is referring to her.

Speaking of Karen Stone, imagine what it must have been like for her. She lost both her children and her only grandson in one afternoon, in a way that, from her perspective, cruelly defies her belief that “all things work together for good.” Is it not likely that she really died of a broken heart?

The air traffic controller that Captain Daly, the pilot of Flight 828, is talking to when he contacts approach control sounds more than a little freaked out. What if the same controller was on duty five and a half years before, when 828 disappeared?

One of the subplots of the first episode concerns the efforts of a team of government investigators analyzing the plane and its contents, trying to figure out what happened. Nothing wrong with that, it’s their job, after all. If some unexplained phenomenon starts flinging random airplanes back and forth through time, I think we taxpayers have every right to expect that someone in authority will look into it. My only quibble is that the investigation is being conducted under the direction of the National Security Agency. While the name “National Security Agency” sounds like an agency that would have broad authority over national security, the NSA’s real life remit is actually quite narrow: codebreaking and communications only. It wouldn’t be investigating mysterious airplane incidents. There are plenty of other agencies in the federal government’s alphabet soup that would have been a more appropriate choice: FAA, FBI, TSA, NASA, maybe even the CDC.

Saanvi’s parents are on screen for maybe a whole 45 seconds, but in those 45 seconds the two actors playing them (Kapil Bawa and Jonée Shady) manage to give their characters an awful lot of personality. That’s some lovely acting.

More lovely acting: Steve Stone, the family patriarch, has only a couple of short appearances in this episode, but actor Malacy Cleary absolutely nails the reunion scene, hesitating on the edge of panic as he tries to figure out how to break it to his long-lost children that their mother is gone.

When Michaela and her parents were talking about Jared’s marriage proposal, I couldn’t help but wonder if Jared went to Jared’s.

Quotes

Captain Daly, to the ATC controller: “We have one hundred ninety-one souls on board, all of whom would love to touch down on one of your runways.”

Cal: “If it's really been five years, how am I still alive?”

Lead investigator: “We interviewed every last one of them. Nothing. And still haven't come across a single substance dating from any time between the day the flight took off and when it returned. It's as if the plane never left the sky.”

NSA boss: “Do I have to say out loud that that's impossible?”

Lead investigator: “Director, no one on that plane aged a day. I think we've taken ‘impossible’ off the table.”

Grace, to a guilt-ridden Michaela: “The universe just gave all of us a do-over. Everything that happened before goes out the window.”

Grace, to Ben: “I have spent every day of the last five years blaming you. Not only for taking that later flight, but for making Cal so desperate for your attention that he wanted to stay with you. I had maybe, what, six months left with him? And even that you took away from me.” Grace’s reaction is totally irrational, and also totally believable. Survivor guilt can do that to you.

Three and a half out of four $400 travel vouchers.

Baby M will not be flying to Jamaica anytime soon, just to be safe.

2 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Welcome to the site, Baby M!

I liked this pilot. Didn't love it. I could feel its "I want to be Lost"-ness. But it definitely has potential. As you said, we'll have to see what they do with it.

Patrick said...

Several shows were listed as inspiration for this show, but one that was left out was The 4400. I got major 4400 vibes from this premiere, which I don't consider a bad thing since I really enjoyed that show. The idea of people who have missed a big chunk of time and are now out of sync with the world, trying to figure out where they fit, coming to terms with the ways the world has moved on without them, etc. is one I enjoyed from The 4400 and I look forward to seeing what they do with it in this show. The idea that there may be a religious aspect to the Big Mystery has me intrigued too, and a little nervous(I'm always nervous when Hollywood tries to tackle religion, for reasons akin to the ones mentioned in this review). But overall I really liked this premiere, and hope they get a chance to tell their story properly.