Wednesday, September 30, 2009

With "FlashForward," ABC Offers a Successor to "Lost" ... Kind of

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

There has been a lot of talk that "FlashForward" (ABC, Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern) is meant to be the network's successor to "Lost," what with the trippy sci-fi premise and Dominic Monaghan soon joining the cast. After watching the debut episode, which aired last week, I can't say I see the fit. But "FlashForward" has a lot going for it.

You've probably heard the premise by now: Every person in the world (well, nearly every person) blacks out at the same time for 2 minutes and 17 seconds, during which they see a vision of themselves in April 2010. As you can imagine, such an event can wreak havoc: planes fall out of the sky (including Air Force Two, carrying the vice president), cars crash, patients die on operating tables, and even someone walking up a staircase can fall to his death. And that's just the passing out element of the event. Seeing the future can be equally horrifying, whether it's a recovering alcoholic witnessing himself back on the bottle (like FBI agent Mark Benford, played by Joseph Fiennes), a wife seeing herself in the company of another man (like Mark's wife, Olivia, played by Sonya Walger, of "Tell Me You Love Me"), or a groom-to-be not having any vision at all (like Mark's partner, Demetri Noh, played by John Cho of "Star Trek" and the "Harold and Kumar" films), which leads him to believe he is going to die.

So "FlashForward" has a doozy of a premise. But does it turn that striking idea into good television? Mostly. You can see the sensibilities of executive producers Brannon Braga (who got his start working on the "Star Trek" series, beginning with "Next Generation," before moving on to "24") and David S. Goyer (the writer of several "Batman" films) all over "FlashForward," and it makes for an often compelling but sometimes odd fit. Goyer's sensibilities would appear to be several shades darker than Braga's, whose shows have been more direct.

Let's start with the positives. Fiennes, who has spent his post-"Shakespeare in Love" years going back and forth between doing theater and playing B-movie baddies for the paycheck (think Heather Graham's seducer and tormentor in the nudity-fest "Killing Me Softly"), puts both skills to good use as the classic troubled hero, an obviously devoted husband and father who, just as obviously, struggles with his demons, including his alcoholism. (One of my pet peeves is when an actor agrees to do a part even though he can't pull off the accent, so I am happy to report that Fiennes makes for a completely plausible American.) Cho is great as his partner, and Walger, while not the most convincing trauma doctor in the world, does a good job conveying how Olivia's vision has upended her stable world. And Courtney B. Vance was seemingly born to play tough-but-beloved authority figures, like his FBI commander Stanford Wedeck, who, in a light-hearted moment, says he was "in a meeting" in his flash-forward, before we see that he was reading the newspaper while on the toilet.

The story was engaging once it moved past the awkward character introductions necessary in pilots. The writers do a great job of keeping you focused not just on the global event, but on the lives of its main characters. Yes, they definitely go for the easy schmaltz a bit too often (Mark and Olivia's TV-approved adorable daughter; Olivia saving an injured 8-year-old boy; the event happening just as Olivia's colleague, Bryce Varley, played by Zachary Knighton, was about to commit suicide on the Venice pier; Mark and Olivia's model-gorgeous babysitter, who is in flagrante delicto with her boyfriend at the time of the event), but the story kept you on the edge of your seat, leading to two chilling moments at the end (one, which should have been predictable, having to do with a gift Mark is given by his daughter, still was effective).

But on the negative side, the schmaltz left "FlashForward" feeling far less weighty than "Lost." That can be a good thing, in that the underlying myth and sci-fi elements will seemingly be more accessible than the dense, hard-to-follow, fanatic-following-friendly plot twists of "Lost," so "FlashForward" should be less intimidating for potential viewers. But it can also be a bad thing, when it is just too much. Nearly every scene is jammed with a less-than-subtle, emotion-directing score, which I found exceptionally distracting. And the show is directed in a way to play up the soapy elements of the story, a great example being the long, multiple-pullback shots of Mark and his daughter when she gives him the gift. It not only felt like the last shot of an episode (there was still more to go), but it bordered on a parody of the emotional pre-commercial-break revelation we've seen on lesser programs. Throw in some stilted dialogue, and the whole thing feels kind of manipulative, going for a heavy-handed assault on the audience's emotions rather than letting the actors and the stories take viewers along on their own.

Considering only one episode has aired, though, it's only fair to acknowledge that "FlashForward" will have every chance to find its footing and settle on a tone that is more in keeping with its dynamite premise. The debut nabbed nearly 13 million viewers, so the show is off to a good start. Leading into ratings juggernaut "Grey's Anatomy" probably helped, so the pressure will be on for "FlashForward" to keep the viewers it was able to attract. If I had a flash-forward to April, I have a feeling it would reveal "FlashForward" to be one of the most successful new programs of the season.