By Bob Clark
After the monumental success of J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof’s Lost, a program that almost singlehandedly repopularized long-form serial narrative and high-concept sci-fi storytelling on American television, there was a headlong rush between all the major networks and cable-channels to produce the next big prime-time tv-event, the kind of mad scramble towards imitations and pretenders that hadn’t been seen since Twin Peaks and The X-Files inspired their own crop of derivative programming. Some of the shows that were greenlit were real quality, like the post-apocalyptic Norman Rockwell portrait of Jericho on CBS, or the alternate-reality Biblical epic of Kings on NBC. Others, like Tim Kring’s Heroes, had obvious potential and moments of greatness, but nothing more. A few, like the tepid rom-com in space Defying Gravity, were just plain bad. In a landscape of television where the limitations of what audiences would accept as far as imaginative premises and ambitious storytelling went, there were plenty of shows that tried to push those limits further, and paid dearly for it, or didn’t make the most of the new room they were given, and got left behind. Where exactly, then, does the one-season experiment of ABC’s FlashForward, fit in– with the underrated successes, or the overdone failures?
Produced for the very same network that put Lost on the air, it bore countless traces of influence from the Bad Robot program that it could be easy to call it the most derivative of all the shows in question. Based loosely on a novel by Robert J. Sawyer and concerning the trials and tribulations of FBI agents investigating a world-wide blackout during which everyone on the planet experienced a momentary glimpse of a future exactly six-months hence, it arrived on small-screens with the same kind of mystery, action-adventure and temporal-dislocating premises that viewers followed on Abrams & Lindelof’s show, and even boasted several cast-away cast-members who had since moved on from “The Island”. Developed for television and overseen by Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer, it boasted the collected talents behind the modern-day Star Trek, 24, Blade and Batman franchises, along with many other veteran writers and directors of experimental and procedural television. As such, it seemed to be something of a perfect storm of conditions to create the next great success story for long-form sci-fi on television– not only were the themes in question similar enough to Lost to attract viewers, yet unique enough to give them an identity of their own, but the talent behind the scenes held significant expertise in both the genres at play and the nature of serial narratives.
And yet, as with the CERN-esque experiment that sets the events of the show into motion, something went wrong. In some cases it was due to plot-lines that took far too long to make good on the promise of their initial hooks– while nearly all of the oracular visions of the future held a nugget of intrigue, many weeks were spent wheel-spinning, with little or no progress on getting towards the root of their envisioned conflict. The hazy flash-forward of Joseph Fiennes’ dogged FBI agent created the structure for most of the show, glimpsing an entire wall full of clues that he would eventually collect and dissect over the course of the season, but very often it felt as though we were simply going through the motions of putting together information we’d already seen, with much of it leading to dead ends, anyway. More interesting were some of the intimate visions– a lesbian agent’s discovery that she would become pregnant, a pair of lovers-to-be dreaming of each other from halfway around the world, a father seeing a daughter he’d long been told was dead– emotional sub-plots which helped fill in the empty spaces of the master-arc with a smaller-scale, more easily identifiable version of the epic, almost apocalyptic experience. Perhaps most intriguing, and disturbing of all was the startling absence of a vision experienced by Fienne’s FBI partner, played by John Cho, who lives under the cloud with the hazy foreknowledge of his own demise.
Or at least, so it would seem– as the series progressed, we started seeing not only how many characters’ visions of the future corresponded to one another (even leading to people all around the world sharing their experiences on the internet), but how a substantial portion appeared to deviate, creating possibilities for destiny to be changed. It’s a direction the show appeared to embrace as it switched show-runners (Marc Guggenheim to Goyer, and then his wife), and began to focus more on the shadowy conspirators behind the global blackout, with Lost-veteran Dominic Monaghan as a lynch-pin scientist with uncertain sympathies. In its final stretches, FlashForward appeared to be turning into a show that was less about the stalwart heroes seeking to stop further world-wide mayhem than it was about the villains seeking to cause more, and profit from it. At those moments there was a deliciously transgressive pleasure to watching the show and rooting for the bad-guys– and it was so easy to do so sometimes, with the deck stacked against the side of good whenever Mamet-regular Ricky Jay entered the frame. Like Dollhouse, it was a program that thrived on the moral and ethical ambiguities of the myriad different characters, but unlike Whedon’s show there was also a rather clear-cut line between the Manichean sides of good and evil, right from the start. Though we spent more of our time with the more conventional protagonists, there was just enough time on the sidelines of the conspiracy for us to glean a slight identification with them, and enjoy the vicarious thrill of watching a cut-throat cabal as it sought to all but end the world, one spectacular special-effects sequence at a time.
It was that over-the-top quality that the show held from the very beginning– depicting a near apocalyptic series of disasters around the world caused by people blacking out and coming to– that kept the show alive and even thriving at its best moments, embracing the sheer overwhelming stakes with a creativity and cleverness in their various set-pieces throughout with a giddy excitement that few programs equaled. Whether it was showing ordinary people surviving near-death experiences on highways, public transportation and window-cleaning scaffolds or staging sometimes ridiculously epic gunfights in office-buildings, evil-genius lairs or parking-garages (complete with a rock-n-roll cover of “Like a Rolling Stone” on the soundtrack), FlashForward was a show that knew how to open and close things with bangs, and deliver cliffhangers that prompted enough high-stakes curiosity to see what happened next. It helped that all those big-scale moments were shot and cut with ABC’s usual glossy production polish, and that the series’ roster of directors were well versed in sci-fi and procedural drama enough to invest the show’s substance with plenty of style. In the end, of course, there was never quite enough meat on the program’s bones to really merit the same kind of attention or grandeur as the other epic-scope serials of the decade, but it still remained an imaginative and attractive hour’s worth of weekly entertainment, neither particularly shallow or deep. And as far as final images go, with Joseph Fiennes’ punch-drunk, trigger-happy G-man running in slow-mo out of an FBI building in the middle of an explosion, you could hardly ask for a piece of slick television that so deliriously took advantage of the short lifespan it received. Good or bad, FlashForward milked every ounce of intrigue out of its premise that one season could afford, and if the results didn’t quite live up to the creators’ hypothesis, it remains an experiment well worth its undertaking.