I don't know what this says about me, exactly, but Ricky Jay is one of my favorite actors. He pretty much plays the same guy in everything he's in, but I love that guy. He tells long-winded stories about the secret history of things in his every performance. He exudes a certain sense of sad menace, as though he might kill you, then have a beer and a good cry over it. He's a big, burly guy with a mellifluous voice and an awesome beard. And he's one of the best magicians or illusionists or whatever you want to call them out there. So when his name popped up in the credits tonight, I was certain FlashForward would continue its upward swing.
Instead, the show chose to squander whatever good will it had built up with me after last week's solid outing, "The Gift," by coming up with an episode that is almost completely devoid of tension. The series seems to be copying the way Lost built its first season - alternating two character episodes for every plot advancing episode - but since FlashForward's characters are pretty much complete drains of tension, the episode instead devolves into two of the men possibly responsible for killing 20 million people playing poker over a bizarre wager, two FBI agents chasing a slim lead up to Barstow and an FBI agent pointing at a shiny blob on a man's finger in a surveillance photo and saying, as if shocked, "That looks like a ring!" Yes, FlashForward is back to being a mess, and the way you know this is because it almost automatically goes back to showing us all of the relevant details in the flash forwards instead of expecting us to have some sort of memory of what's gone before.
I think it's becoming obvious at this point that FlashForward's biggest problem is that it isn't a TV series. It's a movie or a miniseries, honestly. I know a lot of critics said this back when the show debuted, worrying that the show's premise was so thin that it couldn't sustain 100-plus episodes of sci-fi action mayhem, but I was among the few who thought that with adequate character work and a tightly structured plot, it could run for five or six seasons of mind-bending fun. Instead, the show has been scrambling to cover for the fact that it's more about plot than character by ladling out plot slowly. What's ladled out is pretty interesting, for the most part, but everything in between is handled so poorly that it makes one wish the whole thing had just been turned into a two-hour movie where the characters could be ciphers, and the action sequences would be the point of the whole thing.
But back to that whole poker thing. Every time Dominic Monaghan turns up on screen, trying hard to ooze menace and mostly failing as Simon, I imagine everyone in the audience expects him to spill the beans on what caused the blackout. Instead, he plays coy with us. Tonight, he lets slip that it was an experiment that caused everything to happen, but, Lord, I probably could have guessed that from the show's promotional materials. If it's just an experiment that went wrong, that's going to be pretty disappointing, especially as it doesn't seem as awesome as that ominous visual of the towers riding high above Somalia. I get that Simcoe and Simon aren't going to stand around and talk about how they caused the blackout because they both already know that, but by showing us so many scenes where the two hint around about what they did, the whole thing just makes me wish they would speak entirely in exposition, as that at least, while unbelievable, wouldn't make me want to put a fist through the TV.
Also, for God's sake, I mostly find Simcoe's guilt over the blackouts believable (even if I wish he were a better developed character to make the guilt gnawing away at him more trenchant), and I find his desire to craft a release to the press about what happened at least within the realm of plausibility. But I have trouble buying the idea that he would just agree to a night of red, hot poker action with Simon as a way to determine if Simon would go in with him on the announcement to the press. It didn't help that the poker game was about as thuddingly obvious as it could possibly be in its final moments. Simcoe won with a flush? And Simon didn't see the possibility when a five, seven and eight of hearts were on the table? I barely know anything about poker, and I saw that possibility. C'mon, show! (Simcoe cheating seemed like a nice little bit, but the show didn't really build up to it or do anything with it.)
One thing I did like (and the one thing keeping this in the + range of the C spectrum) was the storyline between Aaron and the returned from the dead Tracy, who had a story of seeing something she wasn't supposed to see over in Afghanistan, something that points to military involvement in a massacre (that I'm willing to bet has some sort of connection to the wider events of the blackout because of course it does). The details of this story are kind of clumsy, but Brian F. O'Byrne just sells so palpably the joy that Aaron feels at seeing the girl he thought to be dead again that the whole thing has this muted sense of utter relief to it that feels good to see. And Genevieve Cortese turns out to be a good choice to play Tracy as well. If I'm not terribly invested in the plot, I can at least get some charge out of the actors sinking their teeth into the material, and that's what worked for me here.
Meanwhile, however, Joseph Fiennes continued to prove he's just not up to the task of being the center of this storyline with the long, meandering plot where he and Demetri tracked a lead based on the three-star arm tattoo in his vision up to Barstow. It was another fairly boring police plot from the show, and while I liked the twist that the one woman saw herself in New York because she was in witness protection at the time, the whole thing just didn't add up to much of anything. When there were yet more scenes where Mark and Olivia tussled over whether or not the flash forwards were going to happen as shown or not, I just kept hoping the show would admit that the futures people don't want to happen will be avoided, while the futures people want to happen will happen. More interesting would be seeing the conflict between people actively trying to make their future happen and those trying to avoid it, something the show is doing a poor job of dramatizing.
But, then, this is a show that thinks that having the witness point out one of the guys she saw in a back alley said "Q.E.D." then showing Simon saying that VERY THING in the next scene is a good way to lay in subtle clues about what happened. I liked the Pearl Jam opening montage of the episode, which did a good job of continuing the sense from last week that everyone was in some state of relief after Al's suicide, and I really liked the final scene with Ricky Jay as some mysterious man in charge of the rings (almost certainly the ring Janis picked out in the video footage), but the series, as it is, feels like a plot in search of interesting characters instead of vice versa. You can get away with that in a movie, but it's harder in the more character-dependent medium of TV. FlashForward desperately wants to be thirtysomething with a science fiction overplot, but that would require compelling characters the show seems incapable of building on a consistent basis.
- I find it hard to believe that Al's suicide would be front page news. He surely can't be the first person to receive confirmation that their flash forward would not come true, right? Also, why are TV newspapers so often black and white?
- Mark killing other star tattoos guy might have been a more momentous occasion had the show really bothered to build up either him or the threat he felt from star tattoos.
- Still, Ricky Jay. Damn. You just can't go wrong with that guy!