Timeskipping-Plane Show Manifest Wastes A Perfectly Good Sci-Fi Premise

Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh) is back from the dead and pouty as hell about it. (Image: NBC)

Hollywood legend Robert Zemeckis has a few projects at this year’s Comic-Con. One is Project Blue Book, a retro UFO drama for the History Channel that looks pretty promising. But we’ve seen the first episode of Manifest, the NBC series he produced, and it’s overwrought in all the worst ways.

The earnest voiceover at the beginning (“One little decision can change your life, but also save it”) sounds an early warning bell, but the premise is intriguing enough: A Montego Airways plane takes off from Jamaica in 2013, hits a very brief but very rough patch of turbulence, and touches down in New York — where everyone aboard is stunned to realise that whatever cosmic anomaly happened up in the sky has time-warped them into 2018.

There’s a lot you could do with that. Imagine boarding a flight with President Obama in office and arriving at your destination to learn that Donald Trump has somehow become the leader of the not-so-free world. Think of all the pop culture stuff that’s changed since 2013, the big news stories that have broken, and the advances in technology that we all take for granted.

But in its premiere episode, at least, the years in Manifest appear to be totally arbitrary; it could be 2005, it could be 2025. Manifest is way more interested in getting personal, and investigating how the lost years have affected both the returned passengers and their loved ones who thought they were dead all this time.

Naturally, this makes for some relationship complications. Main character Michaela Stone (Melissa Roxburgh) is welcomed back to her job at the NYPD but finds that her boyfriend, who she was reluctant to marry back in 2013 for vague reasons, is now hitched to her best friend. Michaela also learns that her beloved mother got sick and died in her absence. Ouch.

But some amazing things happen, too. Michaela was on the flight with her brother, Ben (Josh Dallas), and one of Ben’s kids, Cal (Jack Messina). Cal’s previously-probably-fatal leukaemia now stands a good chance of being cured, because research first conducted by Saanvi (Parveen Kaur) in 2013 — another Montego Airways survivor — has evolved into a successful treatment.

That’s a coincidence so intense that Saanvi wonders if maybe saving Cal is the reason the plane jumped ahead five years.

But Manifest isn’t content to let those big questions simmer until we get to know the characters and their lives a little better. It decides to introduce, and then loudly emphasise, the idea that the Montego incident has somehow given those who experienced it psychic powers.

Could the voice in Michaela’s head urging her to “set them free” when she’s drawn to a random fenced-in property have anything to do with the random kidnapped kids (that otherwise have nothing to do with the aeroplane plot) that everyone keeps talking about? How could it not?

There seems to be some interest in figuring out who or what caused the time shift — God is definitely in the running — and there’s also a hint that curious/suspicious/shadowy government forces will start creeping around the Montego folks. Those avenues could help prevent Manifest from just sliding into full-on melodrama.

Or it could turn its focus from the achingly bland Stone family and find a way into the story via one of the other passengers, since there are nearly 200 to choose from.

It could go the way of Lost (an obvious influence) and lean into its mystery and conspiracy elements, or it could take a cue from a show such as The Leftovers, and find weird, existential beauty in a tale about ordinary people confronting the impossible.

But the pilot episode is so heavy-handed and self-serious that, unless something radical changes in week two, it seems doubtful that Manifest will bring anything new to its investigation of the unknown. Set yourself free and skip this one.

Manifest premieres in the US September 24 on NBC. An Australian broadcaster has not yet been announced.

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