By Kevin McFarland
You never forget your firsts: crush, date, kiss, love… and if you’re an obsessive television viewer, especially one with a weakness for romance, your first “will they, won’t they” series. I watched Friends sporadically without ever really connecting with that landmark sitcom. And I’ve watched so much of How I Met Your Mother that I’m pot committed to finish its plodding spiral downward to the finish. But Flash Forward (1996–97), Disney Channel’s first foray into original programming, a show I could only vaguely remember watching as a preteen before finding the entire series on YouTube, was the first time I got personally invested in a romantic plot. Revisiting Flash Forward reveals it to be hidden gem, one that doesn’t get enough credit for providing leading roles to two kids with bright futures, or for blending youthful comedy with the intoxicating beginnings of romantic yearning.
Let’s get this out of the way as soon as possible: I would rather forget that the miserable time-warp memory-blackout series FlashForward ever existed, if only because it sullies the name of Disney Channel’s first original series. Disney Channel had produced cheap-looking television extensions of hit films like Aladdin or The Lion King, but Flash Forward was something different, a move into live action original programming starring kids in exactly their demographic: eighth grade, right before high school, ready to transition from childhood into adolescence.
Flash Forward had a lot going for it. First and foremost, the show was extremely fortunate to land two terrific leads, Ben Foster as Tucker James and Jewel Staite as Becca Fisher, neighbors and friends since infancy. Much like I followed Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s career after finding him endearing on 3rd Rock From The Sun, my affection for Flash Forward mandated that I follow the careers of Foster and Staite. That hasn’t been much trouble, since they both matured from alternately hilarious and poignant child actors into gifted adults—Staite in the sci-fi series Firefly and its film incarnation Serenity among other credits, Foster in films such as 3:10 To Yuma, X-Men: The Last Stand, and The Messenger. Oh, and the show did land one dynamite guest star for a two-episode stint, another child actor-turned adult wunderkind: Ryan Gosling, in his Mickey Mouse Club heyday.
The series begins on the first day of eighth grade, as Becca and Tucker attend school and meet up with best friends Christine and Miles. As the obnoxious vice principal makes an announcement over the public address system, he recites a motto for school: “We come, we learn.” Then the kids in Becca and Tucker’s class yell out, “We forget!” before the announcement concludes with, “we forge ahead.” That’s in the pilot, and it’s an apt metaphor for the series as a whole and the way it feels to watch a show now about 13-year-olds made in the mid-1990s.
So many of the episodes deal with standard sitcom and coming-of-age plots. First parties, squabbles among friends, burning books, girls fighting for equality in sports, choosing between a love of ballet and popularity through cheerleading—these are all common plots and easily copied themes, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them executed as succinctly and convincingly as when Jewel Staite and Ben Foster play them. This was a time before cell phones, in the infancy of the Internet before the rise of instant messaging. The delightful title sequence shows Becca and Tucker as little kids communicating with a tin can telephone between the windows of their second-story rooms.
Much is made of the fact that Clarissa Explains It All went to great lengths to keep its narrator and her best friend Sam as “just friends.” Hey Arnold! and Doug teased romantic possibility between its leads and a crush or a suitor but only began to reach fulfillment by the end of their runs. But Flash Forward didn’t have one lead or one perspective, it had two, a central friendship that always had the building blocks of something more. To see that one plot gradually grow out of the background at the outset to the focus of the series’ final moments is earned with a lot of juvenile laughter and surprisingly heartfelt morals about growing up.
Flash Forward lasted only one season of 26 episodes, but could perhaps be considered a two season show. The first four episodes depict the beginning of eighth grade when Becca and Tucker are just becoming teenagers. Episodes five through 26 were filmed much later, after Staite and Foster were firmly entrenched in puberty. Voices are deeper, kids are taller and more mature, but still in eighth grade, as though the scripts had all been written but production was halted until the kids all fit their parts better. It’s an awkward transition—with Becca’s epically bitchy older sister getting recast—but the unmistakable charm of the leads and gently endearing material wins out.
This show, like essentially every piece of programming on Disney Channel or Nickelodeon at the time, wasn’t aimed at families as something parents could enjoy along with their kids. These networks aired kids’ shows, which is why series like Doug and Flash Forward shove adults to the fringes. Sure, there are parents who pop up every now and again, teachers in school, and other adult characters, but for the most part Flash Forward was a show exclusively about two early teenage neighbors and their group of friends, excluding family stories to focus on their concerns.
Flash Forward was one of the first series that felt painful for me to leave behind, and that I felt demanded a fuller ending. Maybe it’s because I had a lot of close friendships with girls, or because I identified with Tucker’s goofiness and Becca’s artsy side, but those kids just had to get together in some fashion. In the finale, after 20 minutes of kvetching about having to kiss each other in a Robin Hood play, it makes perfect sense that they finally let their guard down in one of those phone conversations that seems to last all night, where they finally reveal the brief moments in their friendship where they started to feel something more. And once they’re backstage preparing for the big kiss scene, it’s perfect that their practice kiss, their first real kiss together, isn’t on stage in front of everyone—it’s a private moment, with a false start, that exactly matches their friendship and personalities.
Becca and Tucker probably wouldn’t end up together. After a year full of Becca’s crushes-of-the-week and Tucker’s constant pining after someone unattainable, they both find comfort in the familiar and stable. After that final kiss that sends the show off into the ether, they probably end up dating going into high school, but so many changes ahead could derail them.
Which is why that final scene is the perfect capstone to a delightful one-season wonder. It’s the start of the first real, solid relationship in Becca and Tucker’s lives, with a lifelong friend. Despite all the ribbing and sniping, the two of them deeply care about each other, and even if a flash forward to their lives 10, 20, 50 years down the road revealed that their paths parted and they didn’t defy all odds to end up together forever, the memory of their first real relationship was actually something meaningful and special, shared with a best friend.
Odds & ends:
As I said, every episode of Flash Forward is available on YouTube, since there’s no DVD release, and I’ve never heard any inklings of a possible official release of any kind.
Previously on Wild & Crazy Kids: Doug
Kevin McFarland is a freelance entertainment and sports writer from San Francisco currently based in Chicago. His work has appeared at The A.V. Club and ChicagoSide Sports. He is an avid Community and Northwestern football fan, despite the misery that inherently comes with both.