Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

FlashForward: "Black Swan"

Illustration for article titled FlashForward: "Black Swan"

Every week, FlashForward promises crazy batshittery and ends up turning into a pretty boring police procedural. Then, at the end, it pulls it together for some more crazy batshittery. This week, at least, FlashForward tossed in some random weirdness throughout the episode’s running time instead of saving it all for both of the episode’s polar ends, but that ended up making the procedural stuff seem that much more boring. Again, there was enough improvement over the series’ awful second episode for me to feel justified in saying that I don’t feel like an idiot for hoping it improves, but it’s still wildly inconsistent. It’s the kind of show where, in the course of one episode, a man can anthropomorphize an egg as British, a jazz trumpeter can provide impromptu scoring for a chase through a desert trailer park and everyone can take life advice from a hot, wanna-be terrorist. Crazy, man!

I was talking with someone on the Twitter, our official demon overlord for the year 2009, about how I generally think the series is much, much better when no one is actually talking, and this episode seemed like a perfect exemplification of that point. There were a handful of striking, inventively directed musical sequences. There was a cool question at the center about what one of the guest characters saw in his flash forward. Again, there were some good guest players (someone in the show’s casting department is getting some great actors to play the smaller parts). But most of the time when the characters speak, they’re not even coming close to saying something about their inner lives. Instead, they state, as baldly as possible, either what we can already see on screen or exactly what they saw or think.

Most of the time, the series accompanies someone’s monologue about what they saw in their flash forward – and can you imagine how there would be that ONE GUY in the office in this universe that just kept nagging everyone about what THEY saw in THEIR flash forwards? – with footage of the flash forwards, so the characters are describing everything we’re seeing. It’s a curious artistic choice, one that mostly seems designed to hammer home to the viewers everything so they don’t miss some of it. Maybe the show would move more slowly if everyone just monologued about what they saw, but that would also force the show to figure out exactly how they all feel about it beyond the most cursory of emotions. It’s the difference between hearing how something affects someone and just seeing it happen to them, and it’s also the difference between making strong character choices and defining your characters entirely via what the plot does to them.

That said, the very talented Michael Rymer was at the helm of tonight’s episode again, and he pulled off some really awesome sequences within the show’s framework. In particular, I was taken with three sequences without dialogue, scored almost entirely by music. The first opened the episode, showing how a bustling park collapses into sleep and then chaos at the time of the blackout, all to the strains of Bjork’s “It’s Oh So Quiet.” It’s a fun song but one that’s hard to work into a TV show because it doesn’t really montage well. It calls attention to itself, and it requires footage that matches the vibrancy of the music. Rymer pulls that off here with the colorful glimpses of the part – striking on a show that so often feels washed out – and then the bus trundling across the grass and into the pond at the center of the park. The sequence of the guy swimming out of the bus – it was his headphones Bjork was issuing from – while rescuing the woman was also well paced and shot, and the guest actor was well-chosen. Hell, even his flash forward was well-shot, concealing the essential fact that in the future, the guy was black when he was very much the whitest man to ever have lived in the present.

The second and third of these sequences weren’t quite as effective, but they were still stylistically adventurous. That chase sequence through the trailer park was both well-shot and really interesting on a style level, as the show made the choice to have a random jazz trumpeter in the alleyways of the trailer park provide the score for the action. Granted, this all devolved into a fistfight that told us a lot of things we already knew – and involved Demetri and Jack arguing about, uh, the workplace when they’d just found what they thought to be YELLOWCAKE URANIUM (it was actually pot, but the characters didn’t know that just yet) – but for a while, it was fun. The third was the least successful, but it was nice for elucidating a lot of Simcoe’s grief over his dead wife in a manner that didn’t involve him saying, “I really miss my wife, y’know?” as he walked around his house and son’s bedroom and set things in order to the sounds of singer-songwriter music. It was filled with nice little visual touches, the sorts of things you notice when you’re dealing with a loss.

The dialogue scenes, sadly, were way more hit and miss. For one thing, the show reintroduced a bunch of characters who checked out after the pilot like Olivia’s doctor friend and the babysitter (five-to-one says the person drowning her is Mona Sterling), and it took its time making sure we knew EXACTLY who they were and their thoughts on things. And every time the series seemed to be getting into some of the interesting thematic territory that comes with its central plot device, it would cut that short with some other abrupt development, like the priest telling Nicole (the babysitter) where she could go to deal with her fears that God was punishing her somehow in her flash forward (or, more directly, that the person drowning her was punishing her for something).

What’s too bad is that a lot of this made for a pretty interesting story. The idea of a doctor figuring out a way to diagnose a patient based on something that patient saw in his future was a nifty one, and the show played it out with just the right amount of twists to keep the audience and characters guessing. The FBI storylines continue to be a drag on the show as a whole, but this one at least had a few more interesting moments than some of the previous ones have had (like that chase and the blonde terrorist lady). And the cliffhanger – while the weakest so far because Dominic Monaghan just came out and said, “We were behind this, weren’t we Simcoe, which everyone on the Internet had guessed some time ago,” or words to that effect – was still pretty neat in how it moved the goalposts forward.

But here’s the thing. I feel like FlashForward has figured out how to move the goalposts forward on a weekly basis already, but the things it continues to struggle with – character development and the sense that these people have inner lives – it only fitfully gives the sense that it will figure out how to fix. For every nifty little character touch, like the priest keeping crickets in a desk drawer for some reason, there’s a very real sense that the show is just doing this because it feels like it should provide character quirks and a sense that these people have been through trauma. What most disappoints about FlashForward at this point is that it has such a fine handle on the weird that it starts to feel a little too mundane.

Stray observations:

  • That said, I laughed, for the first time ever on this show, at something FlashForward WANTED me to laugh at when the patient said, "I'm like this invincible, fearless black guy, like Shaft or Bryant Gumbel."
  • I wonder if I’m not over-inflating this grade just a bit, but that opening two minutes was some damn fine TV. I just wish the rest of the episode had managed to live up to it.