FlashForward debuts tonight at 8 p.m. EDT on ABC.
Show, don’t tell. That’s the most fundamental rule of writing fiction. And there’s perhaps never been a better object lesson than the first episode of FlashForward, ABC’s new vaguely sci-fi drama about when the entire world blacks out and everyone gets a vision of their own, personal futures. The concept is kicky, with a built-in premise that immediately suggests how this might very well be the next great genre drama. The series assembled a great cast (and the surprisingly divisive Joseph Fiennes in the lead). And the opening two acts of the pilot are, honestly, among the best pilots I’ve ever seen. It’s easy to get ready to proclaim FlashForward a pilot for the ages, like the pilot for Lost, the series that most obviously influenced this one, until the rest of the episode slowly deflates like a leaky balloon before rousing itself for a cliffhanger right up there with the cliffhanger from, yes, the Lost pilot. Should you check this out? Absolutely. Will this be a great series? That’s a lot harder to say.
The reason those first two acts work so well is because they’re busy showing us just what it would be like to live through an apocalyptic event like this. Through a series of vivid, near hallucinatory images, director, co-writer and co-creator David S. Goyer (he of the re-imagined Batman films of this decade) quickly paints a picture of both a city (Los Angeles) on the brink of a chaotic event it has no idea is coming and a group of characters who are going to have to deal with it. Goyer paints with broad, broad strokes here, and you’re never going to mistake any of the characters as deeply original in these opening moments – what with some of them including the dedicated FBI agent, his wisecracking partner and his steadfast surgeon wife – but Goyer ably sets up the board with them as the pieces and then rips the board out from under them.
It feels a little hard to overstate just how nice it is to see a pilot that relies so heavily on terrific visuals to tell its story and to suggest mass chaos, especially in this age when films pretty much just show the whole chaotic scene. There are car crashes and people crying out from their wounds, yes. There’s even an ill-timed plane crash. But for the most part, Goyer relies on things like a bunch of balloons drifting off into a clear blue sky or a surfer clobbered by the waves or a kangaroo hopping away down a smoky yet serene alleyway to get his point across. There’s the usual footage of cable news stations showing that, yes, the event was global to keep us informed, but Goyer mostly succeeds in staging a low-key yet ultimately horrifying apocalypse through this series of key images.
From there, though, the pilot loses the plot just a little bit, abandoning show in favor of tell. It’s fitfully interesting in bursts, but so much of it relies on assorted characters we barely know coming up to each other and explaining just what THEIR flash forward entailed for the benefit of their coworkers and the audience. There’s some clever stuff here with how the FBI agents figure out, exactly, that the flash forwards were actual visions of the future and not just random hallucinations and with the contents of some of those flash forwards (including a lengthy discussion of what it might mean if you didn’t see anything), but for the most part, Goyer and his co-writer Brannon Braga seem more interested in the device at the heart of their story than they are in their characters, loading down their talented cast with what amounts to a long series of expositional monologues, rather than attempting to build those characters beyond the mere chessboard pieces they are in the pilot’s opening moments.
It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that very few pilots are able to sketch in more than a couple of characters beyond a quick stereotype drawn to help the audience figure out what’s what. There’s just not enough time, ultimately, to clearly delineate an entire cast of players beyond “He’s the wisecracking partner … and she’s the spooky little kid!” The best pilot writers indicate, through sleight of hand, that, yes, they know where all of these characters have come from and where they’re going and why we should be interested. It’s a promise made to the audience that if they stick around, they’ll delve further into these people’s psyches and we’ll get to know them more. To return to the Lost pilot, think of that scene where Kate stitches up Jack and he tells her the story of how he overcame his fear during a rough surgery. It’s not the world’s best monologue ever, but it does serve as an indicator that the writers know more about Jack than they can let us know just now, and if we hang around, they’ll get back to it.
There are no moments like that in the FlashForward pilot, so dedicated are Braga and Goyer to letting us know just what everyone saw in their flashes. The contents of some of these flashes are so cool that at times, it almost doesn’t matter, but those contents would be a lot cooler were we invested in the characters at all or felt that we might be invested in the characters at some point in the near future. In particular, the contents of that steadfast doctor, Olivia Benford’s (played by Lost alum Sonya Walger), flash should have more emotional impact than they do. Instead, it’s a cool idea, but it never quite sinks in like it might if we had a better idea of why that flash has so destroyed her.
There’s a lot to like about some of the big ideas FlashForward raises. Is there such a thing as destiny? Does seeing the future make you more or less likely to live that future out? And what happens when what you see seems clearly impossible yet makes you long for that impossibility all the more? There are also some great gags based on the idea that these people embark on the course of investigating the flashes largely because of what they saw in their flashes, creating an elaborate chicken-egg kind of question. But big ideas and a cool plot can’t be the only thing you have to lean on when you’re getting the audience to come back week after week.
And then, just as it’s becoming easier to write off FlashForward, the pilot ends with a doozy of a cliffhanger, proving that if Goyer and Braga don’t quite have a grasp of their characters just yet, they do have an idea of where to take the plot in the future. There’s no way I wouldn’t be coming back to watch FlashForward next week, even if I weren’t assigned to cover it, but I’d be a lot more secure in knowing this was a show to follow if I had some sense – any at all, really – that these characters are more than pieces on a big board.
- Welcome to the FlashForward coverage for the first season. We’re adding the show based on the fact that it seems like something that could get really good in weeks to come and something that will be increasingly fun to dissect and predict plot points for. Hope you’ll join me!
- I can already hear some whining about how the grade is too high. Let me say this: I REALLY liked those opening 20 minutes or so and REALLY liked the closing five. Everything in between was probably a B- or C+, but the stuff at the beginning and end was an easy A. Hence, a rough average.
- This is almost too geeky for even me, but I believe Sonya Walger is now the first person to have two TV Club icons featuring her visage. Not Penny’s boat, indeed.
- For those of you concerned about Braga’s name being on this: I hear your concerns. I’d almost share your concerns. But Braga is not working on the show past the pilot. His contract with 24 meant that he had to go back and work on that. The underrated Marc Guggenheim has been brought in to replace him, which gives me some hope for future episodes.
- Finally, it’s weird to see Seth McFarlane turn up as an FBI agent, but he does have the voice and carriage to play a random FBI agent. It’s almost as if we’ve been dropped into a parallel universe where he went into character acting instead of animation every time he turns up.