I'm uncertain on whether I should be rating FlashForward's return tonight against the run of the show so far or against the rest of television. As an episode of FlashForward "Experiment Zero, Parts 1 and 2" is pretty good and one of the show's better efforts (particularly that nearly Benford-less second hour). As an episode of television, though, the series still has a fair way to go. There's a whiff of desperation to a lot of what's going on here, as the show frantically throws stuff at the audience to see what sticks. There's a lot going on in "Experiment Zero," as befitting a show that's realized how much it needs to pick up the pace or never get to make some of its biggest revelations, but there's not the clear throughline the show needs to become the must-watch series I still think it could be.
The central problem with FlashForward at this juncture is basically that it's a pretty kicky little conspiracy thriller that's been awkwardly shackled to a terrible soap opera. The terrible soap opera was what the show started out as, but the more the series gets away from it and reveals the stories of the people who caused the blackout, the more I just want to spend time with them. I was never a huge Dominic Monaghan fan on Lost, but I have to admit that in tonight's second hour, he really gave it his all as we learned the secret history of his involvement with the conspiracy to cause the blackout and his connections to the men involved. Also, there was a plot where a crazy old woman glued pennies to her wall because two of the regulars needed SOMEthing to do, and it sure as hell wasn't going to be advancing the plot.
It's a bad sign when something like nine-tenths of your regular cast is pretty much useless, but I think a seriously streamlined FlashForward could work. You'd have to get rid of almost all of the FBI stuff. (Keep around John Cho, who's doing his best to make Demetri work, then pair him up with Michael Ealy as a guy who doesn't want to uncover the conspiracy because he just wants to stay alive, and this might work.) You'd probably have to eliminate the hospital plotlines entirely (and good riddance), though if you really wanted to keep Sonya Walger around, I wouldn't complain. Refocus the show on the scientists working to stop another blackout and the men working to cause one and have the two sides casually flip back and forth, and while I don't think it would be a show with seven seasons worth of excitement, exactly, I d o think it would feel less flabby than it is. Scientists on the edge of catastrophe and the intrepid FBI agents who are always one step behind them? That's pretty much The X-Files, told from the point of view of the Cigarette Smoking Man, and it sounds awesome.
Unfortunately, ABC paid a whole bunch of people big, pricey season-long contracts, and those are usually difficult for a TV show to get out of. So we're stuck with the Benford Family Band for at least a season (and probably longer, should the show get picked up again). I keep wanting to like Mark Benford or at least Joseph Fiennes' portrayal of him. (Fiennes is trying so hard most weeks that I feel weirdly sympathetic for him.) The series, however, keeps getting in the way of me doing this by trying hard to make him blatantly sympathetic. If this guy is a guy who's been so tainted by his vision that he's circling the drain, let that be as ugly as it should be. Instead, we get several scenes of him hanging out with a sassy black therapist, and while I wanted to like her character, she's pretty much a thematic exposition machine.
Myles McNutt, when he found out I was watching this episode ahead of time, said that he'd probably watch an anthology series called Tales of FlashForward or something. Initially, I thought I agreed with him. The universe of FlashForward is still more interesting than the characters or anything else in it, so a weekly episode that revealed the time-bending misadventures of one person or another all over the world could be fun. You saw the series sort of feint in this direction in "Believe" (still its best episode), which was more of a sweet romantic drama where mental time travel played a part than a thriller of any sort, but the characters the show has are all so uniquely obsessed with figuring out their role within the plot instead of deciding how to process the information they have of their futures that the ability to do this within the cast itself is necessarily limited.
But then I realized that "Experiment Zero" pretty much IS an anthology show called Tales of FlashForward. The two episodes, while well-paced and better plotted than the show usually is, have basically no thematic coherence. There's a bunch of stuff going on that might as well be as disconnected as possible. There's an attempt to tie it all together with a character that we've never seen before - some sort of preacher of fate and free will played by Gil Bellows - who's introduced in a strikingly shot sequence where he dangles above Los Angeles from a window-washing platform, saved by a twist of fate or the hand of God (have it your way). (It is also worth pointing out that this show is still really well-directed, for all its other faults, and ABC is still clearly pouring tons of money into it, money that ends up on screen.) The problem is that the Bellows character doesn't comment on the action in the other storylines obliquely. He hammers home the themes of the piece, just as the therapist and various series regulars are hammering them home just as hard. Our preacher man is not an intriguing new side character. He's a theme conduit, a way for the writers to pretty much say, "Here are some things that have been on our minds, audience."
Which brings me all back to Monaghan's Simon, who was probably the show's most useless character before tonight. In the second hour of this episode, though, he finally makes FlashForward something that feels both compelling and deeply felt. The dialogue handed to him, Jack Davenport and (the beloved) Ricky Jay is often ear-bleedingly stupid, but the three manage to make something real out of it. The slow sense you get of a young man trying to escape his destiny even as it keeps reeling him back in provides a nice thematic counterpoint to the whole point of the show, without the series being terribly blunt about it (or, rather, blunt by FlashForward standards), and the scenes at Simon's family home, the careful war between Simon and Uncle Teddy, were very well-done. The revelation that Simon was Suspect Zero was obvious from several miles away, but Monaghan still played the gravity of that moment (and of realizing his father's death was not an accident) very well. For a few moments, tonight, FlashForward gave us a glimpse of the show it could be, which could only make the show it actually is - which it kept cutting to - all the more painful.
And yet, I watched this episode two days ago, and it's returned to my mind several times since in a way that other shows I watch just don't hang with me. There's something in FlashForward that is struggling to get past all of the crap saddled on top of it, and if that something ever got out, this could be a great, maybe even poetic, show. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely the producers will ever make the hard choices needed to let that show come forward.
- Listen. I'm in on this thing for the long haul. I'll keep recapping it as long as you want to keep reading about it, and I'll be sure to let you know if it turns good.
- Back to that initial question: Graded against all other episodes of FlashForward, this is probably a B+. Graded against all of television, it's a C. So I split the difference.
- Much as I like Jay, Davenport and Monaghan, those scenes where the former two were captured by the latter were all way too similar. "Technobabble!" "TORTURE!" "Technobabble!" "EVEN WORSE TORTURE!" "Technobabble!" "Too many people have died!"
- How far is this show going to chase the multi-worlds hypothesis down the rabbit hole? Because it's a potentially intriguing way to introduce some ambiguity to the series.
- Worst line came from Monaghan, actually: "NOW I'VE GOT MY KILLER STORY." Way to send us to commercial, show.