Monday, September 28, 2009

TV REVIEW: FlashForward (2009): "No More Good Days"

FlashForward -- a new series from executive producers Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer -- might more accurately have been titled "FlashBack."

While watching the catastrophic events of this new series unfold, the careful TV watcher will experience a distinct sense of deja vu for the ghosts of TV series past, notably ABC's powerhouse Lost, and the canceled ABC series The Nine.

Like Lost, Flashforward opens in media res, with utter pandemonium. A series of diverse characters (like, say, the passengers on a crashed plane...) awake to find themselves injured, confused and populating a vast disaster area. Only here it's urban. Sirens blare, cars are overturned. Someone is on fire. And a kangaroo (substituting for an out-of-place polar bear?) hops down a busy metropolitan avenue.

The presentation is similar to Lost too: immediacy-provoking shaky-cam and all. And yet, it's undeniable that these shots of a chaotic Los Angeles freeway (and skyline) resonate in this day and age: they are epic in scope and presentation, and successfully remind one of the stomach-wrenching terror of 9/11. In one impressive and horrifying shot, a helicopter hits a skyscraper, balloons into flame, and then careens down to the top of a smaller building. Where it explodes.

Clearly, no expense was spared.

Another reference to Lost also arrives early: a billboard for Oceanic Airlines is visible in the background of one shot. If you're awake, you can't miss it, and I guess that's the point. I can hear the announcer now: "If you like Lost, you'll love FlashForward!" Now, I don't mind homage, but this represents craven corporate synergy here. Marketing embedded as drama. It's sort of insulting.

Like the late, lamented The Nine, FlashForward introduces a variety of dissimilar characters going about their normal, daily lives when something traumatic and totally unexpected occurs to them. In The Nine, it was a hostage situation in a bank that affected the dramatis personae. Suddenly, life was scrambled, relationships were re-shuffled, fates were altered, and the experience "changed everything."

In FlashForward, we get a vaguely sci-fi variation on the format: a sudden global black-out -- replete with premonitions -- lasts for two minutes-and-seventeen seconds and is the catalyst for a whole new direction in life. A doctor planning suicide suddenly glimpses his future and realizes it's not his destiny to die now. An FBI agent (Joseph Fiennes) who has given up drinking sees an image of himself off the wagon...drunk. His wife, yet another doctor, sees herself in a passionate relationship with another man. Her marriage is apparently over. See? Suddenly, all of life is up for grabs...

The nagging feeling that you've seen all this before is heightened, alas, by FlashForward's insistence on hammering home the episode's salient points ad nauseum. A TV news report flat-out states (with accompanying images of destroyed European capitols...) that the black-out was worldwide. But then, a stranger watching the broadcast notes, "my God, it's the whole world!" Then, after the commercial break, Fiennes' Benford tells us again that the black-out affected the whole planet. Without exaggeration, the episode reminds us six or seven times in the first hour that the phenomenon was worldwide, just so we don't miss the obvious.

Much information is transmitted in this ham-handed, unskilled fashion, for those in the audience with attention-deficient disorder, I guess. For instance, Benford's wife, Olivia (Sonya Walger), experiences a vision of her "future lover." We see that mysterious future lover in a vision, in profile...and get a good look. Then, that mystery man appears in the present, and the episode swoops around to get a profile. The camera move triggers our memory, as does the man's physical appearance. We recognize him immediately, but that's not sufficient for FlashForward. Nope, the episode cuts back to the same vision footage we just saw, just to make sure the audience "gets" that it's the same guy.

During the commercial breaks too, the over-caffeinated voice-over announcer aggressively reminds the viewership of everything that just happened three seconds ago. Was that kangaroo -- gasp -- a clue? What is the importance of the date of the flash-forward (April 29, 2010)? There's nothing like attempting solve a mystery in which the clues have been spoon-fed to you with the subtlety of a game-show announcer calling down the next contestant.

The significance of the date April 29, 2010? Let me hazard a guess. Why, that just happens to be a Thursday night! The night of FlashForward's season finale! How convenient! In the book by Robert Sawyer, by point of contrast, the flash forward was twenty-years or so into the future, not a mere six months. I guess the makers of FlashForward are hedging their bets...

And well they should. This program is pitched so low that the creators must assume the general TV audience now consists entirely of cabbage. My concern: if they think we can't understand that the black-out was world wide, how on Earth do they think they can explain quantum theory, strange matter and the other esoteric aspects of Sawyer's novel to us?

Now, just the other day, I posted a quote by Jean-Luc Godard in which he noted that it's not where you take things from that's important, it's where you go with them. Given that philosophy, I don't mind all that much that FlashForward steals some thunder from The Nine (which nobody but me watched anyway...) or the popular Lost. Imitation is the name of the game in television more often than not. What I find much more troubling is the mind-numbing lack of subtlety on display here. This show doesn't trust the audience to pay attention at all.

As annoying as this "telegraph-and-repeat EVERYTHING" approach turns out to be, I still found aspects of FlashForward tantalizing. One character, Demetri (John Cho), experiences no vision during the black-out, and assumes that this can only mean one thing. That he has no future. That in six months, he'll be dead. Now that's a terrific wrinkle in the formula. In the episodes ahead, Demetri may literally be fighting for his life.

And, of course, underlying everything here is the exact same (fascinating) debate that informed the movie Knowing (2009): free will versus determinism. Can the future be changed? Does knowledge of the future, in fact, automatically change the future? These are fascinating notions and can make for some great TV drama. I also found the last few shots of FlashForward's pilot absolutely chilling. One man on Earth, it seems, did not black out at all. Does this mean he's not human? Immune? Protected? What? That's a very intriguing mystery, no doubt.

But I still don't have much confidence, at least not yet, that the writers of FlashForward are going to approach these concepts and mysteries in anything approaching an intelligent fashion. In some ways, FlashForward gives me deja vu for one other TV program: Brannon Braga's Threshold (2005). That alien-invasion series exhibited a great premise but by the second episode the execution of that premise had gone straight down the toilet. The whole thing lasted six or seven episodes, as I recall.

I bet Braga's hoping we all don't flash back to that traumatic experience.

7 comments:

  1. Is FlashForward available on Hulu or some other online site?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey Nick!

    FlashForward is on Hulu.

    http://www.hulu.com/watch/97929/flashforward-no-more-good-days

    best,
    JKM

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi,

    You guys should try FlashForward's online mosaic; you can check it out here: http://bit.ly/4vneT4

    And join the Facebook group to connect with FlashForward fans and to discuss the show and cast.

    Hope you like the show!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I rather enjoyed the pilot, but I stopped watching Lost midway through Season 2 and I missed The Nine entirely. I didn't see the constant repetition of information as the creators not trusting the audience, but as a natural response by the characters to try to get a grasp on a phenomena that, for them, is unprecedented (since none of them seem to be the types of people who have time for television or pleasure reading). It helped me buy their reactions more, since I felt that I would probably be doing the same kind of circular conversation under similar circumstances. As for the flashforward flashback when Jack Davenport shows up in the present... I guess I don't even notice stuff like that. Actually, I fully anticipated and accepted it... For better or worse, it's part of the storytelling language now.

    I watched the episode on Hulu, so I didn't get the announcer feeding me clues. I think that would've annoyed me as well.

    I'm looking forward to the next episode. I anticipate that there will be increasing conflict between the people with good omens (predestination) and those with ill (free will).

    ReplyDelete
  5. I thought this was one of the most intriguing storylines of any show I have seen in a long time. The acting by Joseph Fiennes was impressive, and the foreshadowing will definitely keep me interested and tuning in each week to see what happens next.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hey John,

    Well I just watched the second episode of FlashForward and WOW were the "flashbacks" blatant. Far more than in the pilot. I found them much more annoying in ep 2. Must the networks always sell to the lowest common denominator?

    It shames me to admit this, but my mom watches Days of Our Lives, and sadly while visiting her up in Brisbane I am subjected to it. After watching about 3 episodes last Christmas I realised they were heavily showing flashbacks from earlier episodes. Without any doubt this is done so that the casual or new viewer can come in and get an idea of what is happening. I'm assuming much the same is happening with FlashForward. I like the concept of the show, so I'm hoping most of the flaws are primarly due to network (i.e. $$$) pressure impacting upon creative integrity.

    Here in Australia, they advertised ep 2 at the end of the pilot as having the first appearance of Dominic Monaghan. By the end of ep 2, when it was clear he was not in the episode, they again showed a flash of him when advertising ep 3. As far as I've read, he does not appear until ep 4. This again appears to be network pressure to cash in on Lost as a draw for audiences (the Oceanic poster and Kangaroo ala Polar Bear caused Sarah and I to just shake our heads in disgust and disappointment).

    Bottom line, this show is no Lost. The characters of Lost are the main reason for my sticking with it. In stark contrast however, I'm not really caring about the characters of FlashForward right now, due to the reasons you appropriately pointed out.

    As for those who say Lost "jumped the shark" after season 2, the truth is that 'The Others' storyline would have gotten old very quickly. It was time for a change. If not for the characterisations so complained about during the first season, it would have been much harder to accept the drastic changes.

    So anyway, FlashForward...so far it has certainly not been the flagship program that ABC hopes it will be once Lost disappears in time.

    Maybe if I jump back a couple of weeks I can re-watch it with lower expectations.

    Henry

    ReplyDelete
  7. Anonymous5:20 AM

    Just the fact that so many people were saying "this is the best show since Lost!" and when I and others pointed out the same flaws you just pointed out, they said "What are you talking about? I saw nothing wrong with it?" just proves that the audience for this show is the intellectually challenged lowest common denominator. -R.

    ReplyDelete