Test Pilot: File #63, FlashForward

By Cory Barker and Kate Tripoli

Test Pilot #63: FlashForward
Debut date: September 24, 2009
Series legacy: ABC’s most high-profile attempt to replicate the success of Lost

Good morning everyone! Welcome to the final entry in the latest Test Pilot theme. I’m sad to be leaving the post-Lost failures behind, but it’s time. I’ll take a brief respite to conceive the next theme or two, but please send me your suggestions on Twitter. Just in case you’re randomly joining us at the end of the theme, here’s a little about what we’re doing with these pilot episodes:

Over the next few editions of this feature, my guests and I will discuss some of the shows that debuted in the aftermath of Lost with hopes of becoming The Next Lost. ABC’s 2004 island-based drama interjected life into broadcast television with a sprawling story with a large cast, flashbacks, mystery, and a grand narrative with hints of the supernatural around the edges. We know that television is a copy-cat business, and by the next television season, the networks were trying to replicate Lost‘s success with a slew of shows heavy on the mystery that hooked some Lost viewers, but mostly light in their focus on the characters and emotional stories that appealed to even more Lost fans (especially in the first season). Every season, there’s at least one show that tries to tap into some of the magic that made Lost such a big hit from the jump, and with few exceptions (the first chunk of Heroes episodes), viewers don’t buy it. But were all those shows actually as bad as the viewer and/or critical resistance made it seem? Or were we all just too close to Lost that it was hard for any other show to share a similar function?

We conclude with yet another ABC product (they really tried to recreate that Lostian success, huh?), and our most recent offering: 2009’s FlashForward. Based on the Robert J. Sawyer novel and developed by the immortal duo of David S. Goyer and Brannon Braga, FlashForward follows a slew of people (most of them in L.A.) in the aftermath of a global event where everyone (well, almost everyone) blacked out for 137 seconds, only to see a vision of their future during that blackout (hence the name). The show was one of the most anticipated of the 2009-2010 season and probably one of the more anticipated Lost-y shows to come along. In theory, FlashForward offered viewers a compelling concept and an appealing cast. However, as these things go, the show debuted to good-but-not-great ratings, immediately declined, and ABC eventually just shrugged and moved on. FF had lost so much momentum that the network premiered the show’s big two-part spring return against the opening night of March Madness. What the heck went wrong?

Joining me today to try to answer that question is Kate Tripoli. You can find Kate on Twitter (@theshoresofme) where she tweets about television, superheroes, and choir. She will defend the Lost finale to her final breath.

Kate: “Hey, are you going to watch FlashForward? It looks like Lost.” In the fall of 2009, I must have been asked this question a half dozen times by different friends who knew that my favorite show of all time was in its final season. I had seen the ads, and yes, the central premise of a diverse group of people experiencing a strange calamity together did remind me of ABC’s aging and divisive sci-fi hit. But it takes more than just putting an ensemble of strangers in the middle of a potentially extranormal threat to make something as evocative and powerful as Lost. Although its parallels with, references to, and outright thefts of Lost are hard to miss, FlashForward was obviously under orders to avoid the kind of backlash that was mounting against Lost’s convoluted plot. As a result, it ended up suffering from a serious lack of conviction.

From the very first images, the homages are thick on the ground. In the opening close-up, Joseph Fiennes is upside-down. The camera slowly pulls back from his face to reveal him struggling to get out of an overturned car. The sounds of panic swell as he emerges from the wreck into a scene of total chaos on an LA highway, with overturned cars, crushed bodies, and a guy on fire. Sound kind of familiar? Clearly, the opening scene of Lost is being evoked here, and with good reason: it’s a heck of a hook. But FlashForward only gives us 10 seconds of it before jumping back in time four hours for a more traditional introduction to the characters. It’s a hasty move to assure viewers right out of the gate that this is a show that offers all the excitement of Lost without any of the annoying delayed gratification, and it’s one that seriously undercuts the hellishness of the cold open. We’ll return to the scene of the accident later and spend some more time there, but already the show does not seem convinced it can hold our attention for very long.

This tentativeness prevents the entire hour from really letting loose. We meet a handful of our core characters, but no one makes much of an impression. FBI agent Mark Benford (Fiennes) and his surgeon wife Olivia (Sonya Walger, a Lost alum) have a loving, if not passionate, relationship. Mark’s AA sponsor Aaron (Brian F. O’Byrne, sporting a beard that makes him look like the love child of Clark Gregg and Jim Beaver) confesses at a meeting that losing his daughter to the war in Afghanistan has made him drink again. Nicole (Peyton List), the Benfords’ babysitter, worries that she and her boyfriend will get caught having sex while little Charlie Benford (Lennon Wynn) sleeps upstairs. Bryce (Zachary Knighton), a colleague of Olivia’s, skips work to take in one last beautiful day on the pier before shooting himself in public. You know, as you do. Mark’s rookie partner Demetri (John Cho) is bemused that his fiancee wants their first dance to be the Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton duet “Islands in the Stream.” A few aspects of these characters call to mind Lost’s cast, although sadly without the same degree of diversity. Our hero is a recovering alcoholic. Sonya Walger is raising a kid named Charlie. Cho’s lighthearted manner marks him as the “Hurley” of the ensemble, but none of them are especially fascinating or unique characters. They’re broad strokes that may or may not be filled in later, relying on familiar tropes as a shortcut to our emotional engagement. They are not the real stars of FlashForward.

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The real stars of FlashForward are revealed as the four-hour time jump catches up to where we started, and Mark–during a high-speed chase with some suspected international terrorists–experiences a jumble of rapid-fire images followed by a brief, dreamy vision of himself in his office in what we will soon learn is six months into the future. This is the titular “flashforward,” which another character later will specifically name the phenomenon, just in case you were confused about what show you were watching. The flashforwards, which we will learn later happen to nearly everyone and offer a glimpse of April 29, 2010 at 10 p.m. Pacific Time, are the show’s raison d’etre. This is the stuff that ABC thinks you came for, and maybe they can be forgiven for that. After all, they’ve seen the wikis, comment sections, and message boards full of painstaking analysis and countless screencaps that swamped the Lost fandom in its early days. When even a respected critic like Alan Sepinwall publically obsesses over who was shooting from the outrigger, it’s understandable to think that what kept viewers tuning into Lost was the grand conspiracy and the promise of a unifying resolution that would blow everybody’s minds. And by 2009, it was that for many people. But the problem here is that this is not five years into FlashForward’s run. This is a pilot. A TV pilot has one job, and it is not to assure you that there is a multi-year plan behind the scenes. It’s to make you want to watch the next episode.

If “No More Good Days” put in more effort confronting the philosophical implications of the flashforwards, I might want to watch the next episode. All kinds of interesting issues relating to free will and determinism flow from this globally shared psychic event. Demetri touches on them briefly when he asks if Mark’s vision of the future is guiding their investigation today. The show seems to hint at a predestination bent when Mark glumly accepts a friendship bracelet from his daughter that featured prominently in his flashforward. Nicole thinks God is punishing the world with these visions while Bryce believes God used them to tell him everything will be okay. It’s not like these questions are completely unaddressed, but FlashForward is wary about openly inviting you to wonder if you’d want to know that you were going to be dead six months from now, or whether your choices are not free simply because at some point in the future, they have already happened, or whether prophecy is a gift of God or a curse. That’s heady stuff that tends to scare off viewers, and there’s not much here that suggests these ideas will get any more than lip service.

Conversely, if the show really ramped up the aftermath of the two-minute, 17-second “global blackout,” I might want to watch the next episode. This kind of “thought experiment” sci-fi is popular because it invites you to try and outsmart the future. What would happen if the whole world lost consciousness for over two minutes? The damage would be catastrophic and the effects felt in every home, institution, and system for months afterwards. And how does FlashForward choose to portray this? By having Courtney B. Vance calmly explain it to us from the safe, clean confines of a well-appointed FBI conference room. Maybe the show just doesn’t have the budget to show us convincing global disaster, but come on. At the very moment when the action should continue building toward a climax, the story comes to a stumbling halt as the rest of the hour is swallowed by a morass of exposition about what has happened and what is going to happen in the next few episodes. We get a brief jolt in the final moments as one of the agents assigned to investigate the flashforwards discovers security footage of one person who was awake and walking around during the blackout, but after our interest has been deadened by a third act where people stand around and describe things to each other, this attempt at a cliffhanger just feels like cynical pandering.

FlashForward believes it has learned from Lost’s mistakes, but it’s foolish to observe the problems of a show five years in the making and try to head them all off at the pass in your pilot, especially when it makes your show less interesting in the process. I don’t remember anybody complaining about a lack of direction or answers after the Lost pilot. In fact, whatever missteps may have occurred later in Lost’s run, that show’s pilot is a model of confident storytelling that grabs your attention and doesn’t let go. Mysteries and conspiracies are for later; right now is the time for action and heart. FlashForward doesn’t fail for lack of a plan; it fails because it is so concerned about the future that it doesn’t know how to live in the present.

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Cory: When I think back over all these shows that came to the air after Lost, the failure of FlashForward bums me out the most. Three alien invasion shows in one season? Recipe for disaster, despite any straggling strands of quality from InvasionSurface, and Threshold. A show about the aftermath of a 52-hour bank robbery? Maybe not a recipe for disaster, but certainly one for a whole lot of problems (like making Kraft Mac & Cheese with water instead of milk). But this show, and this premise? Full of potential and a good chance to be interesting at worst. And while I’d claim that FlashForward remained somewhat interesting in its 22-episode sole season, it quickly became a vessel for a lot of unrealized potential and poor execution. Nearly four years later, I’m still a little bummed about it.

At the same time, this pilot and show is also the one that clearly tried so freaking hard to combat any comparisons to Lost while simultaneously trying to play up the similarities. While Goyer and Braga were talking up their multi-year plans in the press and dissuading the media from comparing FlashForward to Lost before the pilot aired, they were planting Oceanic Airlines billboards in the pilot, more or less aping the opening sequence of Lost‘s first episode, and casting Sonya Walger and later Dominic Monaghan (that last part might not have been intentional, but it’s hard to ignore). What’s really fascinating about FlashForward‘s problems is that it’s probably the one show of these kinds of shows that almost figured out how to key into the magic that made Lost work. But more than anything else, FlashForward ultimately proved that Lost‘s successes were a wild confluence of talent, timing, luck, and more.

Kate did a wonderful job of hitting on this idea, but it’s worth repeating. One of, if not the, biggest flaw of FlashForward is the lack of urgency prevailing through the entire enterprise. The opening moments hint towards the local and global damage to come, but then immediately cuts away so that we can get to know some of the people about to be affected by the blackout. If you’ve read other entries in this theme you know that I’ve beat the drum about establishing characters before jumping right into some grand–and likely stupid–conspiracy. Yet watching FlashForward struggle to make Mark, Olivia, and company that interesting helped me remember that it’s not about when you establish character, but how (duh, but go with me). Invasion and The Nine both did a just-fine job of quickly introducing the audience to its characters and their basic tensions, while Surface and Threshold struggled with that concept much more. But it’s not a time thing: Invasion teases its big mystery before we see the main characters, but we spend lots of time with the characters of The Nine before they are trapped in the bank with one another.

Most of all, Lost doesn’t waste ANY time showing us the lives of the 815’ers before jumping right into its thrilling opening minutes. The show’s flashback structure allows Lost to fill in those moments later, sometimes to an obnoxious degree, but that beach sequence tells us everything we need to know about the show’s premise and it’s most integral character in Jack. It’s the best pilot opening ever and there’s no stupid In Media Res beginning that sends us back to Jack at the airport right in the middle of saving Hurley on the beach. Thus, while I still appreciate pilots that focus on character before jumping into big concepts, questions, and mysteries, the differences between Lost and FlashForward show us that character focus comes in different shapes and sizes, and that just trying to fill in the characters before getting to the other stuff doesn’t automatically equate to any kind of success.

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Once the pilot meanders its way back to that solid sequence on the freeway, it’s not as if the energy increases that much. Sure, some cars crash, flip over, and burn while people scream quite a bit, but it never really feels like too many people are jeopardy. There are a few reasons for this. First, Fiennes just isn’t right for the role, or at least this sequence. Whereas you can really feel Matthew Fox’s energy as Jack running around the beach, Fiennes’ Mark mostly looks around, provides empty yells, and then tells everyone to relax. Fiennes made Mark more interesting as his psyche deteriorated over the first season, but he’s pretty stiff in the early going to the show’s detriment. Second, the sequence doesn’t linger enough. There are little moments, like with Mark on top of the car looking out onto the freeway destruction, that work, but there’s too much cross-cutting to other characters and ultimately, the set-piece simply is too short. That Lost beach sequence is dramatically longer. Again, these comparisons aren’t necessarily fair because Lost is such a better show than FlashForward, but A.) That’s the point and B.) This pilot is clearly trying to tap into certain moments that Some Other ABC Drama did.

From there, FlashForward‘s pilot immediately loses any remaining momentum and turns into a 30-minute series of boring monologues and exchanges of “What did you see?” I understand the desire to turn a story into a grand global conspiracy with a few select characters at the center (what Goyer termed an “intimate epic”), but the pilot waves away all of that phrase’s “epic” with a few choice (and unbelievably rapid) global news reports and a phone call to Alex Kingston. Clearly there wasn’t a budget to actually shoot all over the world, but if the primary sets are just going to be FBI offices and conference rooms, it’s probably not too difficult to include more diversity, if only to live up to the scope promised from the jump.

The initial and extended sequence in the conference room with like a dozen FBI agents basically figuring out the entire premise of the show is so slow, so full of exposition, and by the end, so boring. Sure, it probably wouldn’t have worked to withhold big information about the blackouts–that it happened everywhere, seemingly plaguing everyone–but it’s just ridiculous that a bunch of dudes in a meeting figured out the length of blackouts, their connection to the future, and the idea that everyone experienced the same time period.

By the halfway point of the pilot, FlashFoward has moved on from the carnage presented in its opening moments and moved on from some of the big questions inherent with its premise, leading to the FBI mostly going about their day like nothing happened while the various news reports offer unbelievably precise and concrete details about something that just happened hours ago. Olivia and Bryce’s hospital isn’t that much more crowded than the ones in a typical episode of ER. Mark goes home pretty early, leaving Dem, Janice, and five other people to plug away on their computers–at the FBI. The pilot burns through so many possibly intriguing concepts and conversations in such a short time so it can focus on less compelling questions like “Who did it?” This is, yet again, where Lost‘s big shadow creeps into FlashForward‘s execution of its premise. Lost supposedly jerked the audience around too much and FlashForward wasn’t going to do that. It was going an intimate epic that provided answers. Or something. But in the rush to prove its “different from Lost” bonafides, this pilot forgot to be that engaging after the first 18-20 minutes.

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Amusingly, FlashForward‘s inability to produce interesting characters should have been expected. Just weeks ago we watched Threshold, another show produced by Goyer and Braga, and its pilot followed a very similar framework: Big opening moments, lots of “revealing” exposition, and a weird feeling that the big moments had happened weeks ago. And while I think FlashForward aims to be much more of a character study than Threshold, Goyer and Braga’s now long-standing inability to develop three dimensional individuals who do more than just tell you exactly how they’re feeling, it still fails.

Kate’s final line is a tremendous summary of what ailed this pilot, but it’s not just that Goyer and Braga wanted to get to the future; it’s that they wanted so badly to prove that this wasn’t Lost. They were right of course. FlashForward wasn’t Lost. It wasn’t even close.

Of course, each of the five shows we covered in this theme failed on their own merits; Lost didn’t necessarily have that much to do with it. Maybe viewers just didn’t want to watch one show about an alien invasion, let alone three. Maybe an ongoing drama about a two-day bank robbery just couldn’t sustain anything after the initial “Huh, that’s cool” reaction. And maybe Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer just suck at making long-form television with remotely engaging characters. In that regard, it’s maybe been a little unfair for us to compare these shows to Lost (or at least for me to create this theme). However, all five of these pilots and their subsequent episodes prove that it’s not easy to be The Next Lost because nothing can ever replicate Lost. Despite your feelings on the final season, the final 10 minutes, Jack’s tattoos, or Nikki and Paulo, Lost is still a once-in-a-lifetime, marvelous achievement.

Conclusions on legacy: Supremely disappointing, kind of a drag

2 Responses to “Test Pilot: File #63, FlashForward”

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