This is a spoiler-free review of the series premiere of NBC’s Manifest.
NBC’s new fall drama Manifest has been drawing comparisons to ABC’s Lost ever since the concept was announced; the show revolves around a plane full of missing people, and recurring numbers of great significance, with its slow-burn mystery set to unfold over the course of multiple seasons (if it lasts that long – always a crapshoot in today’s TV landscape).
Seemingly trying to combine the high-concept procedural elements of NBC’s recent hits Blindspot and The Blacklist with the familial drama of This Is Us, Manifest feels similar to a lot of other shows without quite nailing its own identity, at least in the series premiere.
The show initially introduces us to a handful of passengers on Montego Air Flight 828; although the pilot centers around Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh) – a cop with a troubled past who is in no rush to return home from a family vacation to the doting boyfriend who keeps trying to propose to her – and her brother Ben (Josh Dallas), a happily married father of twins, whose son Cal is undergoing treatment for leukemia. When Michaela, Ben, and Cal take a later flight home from the rest of their family on April 7, 2013, their lives are forever changed by what seems like a particularly rough patch of turbulence, which somehow causes their plane to go missing for more than five years, even though it feels like no time has passed for everyone on board.
When they land, in November 2018, their loved ones have given them up for dead and started moving on with their lives (in a clever twist, Cal’s twin sister Olive is now five years older, completely altering the dynamic between them), and a portion of the pilot is dedicated to the passengers’ painful attempts to re-assimilate into their former lives when the world has carried on without them.
Surprisingly, given all the mythology that’s being built (sometimes laboriously), it’s these quieter moments that prove to be Manifest’s greatest strength, adding a surprising emotional heft to an otherwise fantastical narrative as these characters grapple with all they’ve lost in the space of one otherwise routine flight. The actors play the awkwardness and turmoil of these broken relationships with believable weight, and it’s fascinating to watch the ways these people must renegotiate their relationships with each other, and the facades they present – both the passengers and the family members who’ve been living without them for five years – to try and spare each other’s feelings.
The series is on less solid ground when it starts to lean into the potential causes of the plane’s five-year disappearance, and the strange, possibly supernatural abilities that the passengers are now starting to manifest (see what we did there?). When so many other genre-tinged mysteries have come and gone on broadcast in the years since Lost (FlashForward, The Event, Alcatraz, Touch, Believe, The Crossing – pick your poison), it takes admirable confidence – but also some hubris – to launch something so ambitious, especially outside of a binge-watch format, and at least in the pilot, everything feels a little too familiar to be satisfying. That’s not to say that Manifest won’t forge its own path as it goes on, but you can’t help but feel that the whole exercise is a little too derivative in the early going – especially since critics weren’t provided with more episodes beyond the pilot to get a sense of what the show will look like week to week.