What did you see?
How’s this for high concept: In an instant, everyone on the planet gets a glimpse of his or her future, and the world is forever changed. That’s the premise of Robert J. Sawyer’s 1999 novel Flash Forward, loosely adapted into a TV series for ABC by Brannon Braga (Star Trek: Voyager) and David S. Goyer (Blade: Trinity). Despite tons of hype and lavish production values, the series FlashForward didn’t make it to a second season, but all 22 episodes are now here on this five-disc set. What did you see?
On Oct. 5, for just over two minutes, the entire human race blacked out. This led to approximately 20 million deaths, from people who were in airplanes, in traffic, walking up and down stairs, etc. In Los Angeles, a group of FBI agents investigate the crisis. While comparing notes, they realize that not only did they all have odd visions while blacked out, but their visions were connected, and they’re not the only ones. It’s soon discovered that everyone on the planet saw about two minutes’ worth of April 29, six months into the future.
Now, while humanity grapples with knowing its fate (or is it?) the FBI has been tasked with finding out how and why this happened, and—this is the big question—will it happen again?
Those whose lives were affected include:
• FBI Agent Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare In Love) becomes a central figure in the investigation, because his future vision had him looking over a board full of clues on the wall to his office. His future-memories of these clues lead him and his follow agents into uncovering the conspiracy that might have caused the blackout.
• Dr. Olivia Benford (Sonya Walger, Lost), Mark’s loving wife, except that during her flash forward, she was with another man.
• Lloyd Simcoe (Mark Davenport, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End), a genius scientist who might have something to do with the cause of the blackouts. Further complicating matters is that he’s the man Olivia saw in her vision.
• Demetri Noh (John Cho, Star Trek (2009)), Mark’s FBI partner, who saw nothing during the blackout. Does that mean he’ll be dead in six months?
• Janis Hawk (Christine Woods, The Madness of Jane), another FBI agent, who saw herself pregnant in the future, even though she has no current plan to have a baby.
• Chief Wedek (Courtney B. Vance, Extraordinary Measures), Mark’s boss at the FBI, who encourages the agents to use their future knowledge and bend the rules, but only to a point.
• Bryce Varley (Zachary Knighton, Surfer, Dude), who works with Olivia at the hospital. He saw romance in his future, snapping him out of his suicidal funk and giving him a new, positive outlook.
• Nicole Kirby (Peyton List, Mad Men), babysitter and family friend for Mark and Olivia. She saw herself being drowned in the future.
• Aaron Stark (Brian F. O’Byrne, Brooklyn’s Finest), Mark’s friend, whose daughter died in Afghanistan years earlier. In his flash forward, though, he saw her alive. How is that possible?
• Simon Campos (Dominic Monaghan, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), a mysterious man with a connection to Lloyd. He knows many secrets, and no one’s sure whose side he’s on.
Everybody seems determined to compare FlashForward to TV megahit Lost. There’s a good reason for that, though. Knowing that the story of Nothing-Makes-Sense Island was ending, ABC hoped to entice all the Lost fans with a series calculated to be as much like Lost as possible. Don’t believe me? Consult the following chart:
Lost began with a catastrophic plane crash.
FlashForward began with multiple catastrophic plane and car crashes.
Lost introduced a central mystery of “What is the island?”
FlashForward introduced a central mystery of “What caused the blackout?”
Lost starred Dominic Monaghan and Sonya Walger.
FlashForward starred Dominic Monaghan and Sonya Walger.
Lost had a “WTF” appearance of a polar bear.
FlashForward had a “WTF” appearance of kangaroo.
Lost made headlines worldwide by introducing “flash forwards” into its story.
FlashForward, well, just look at the title.
And so on. The secret conspiracies, the outrageous plot twists, the unrequited romantic longings, the over-the-top cliffhangers, the surprise connections between seemingly unrelated characters—it all seems like the creators took a long, hard look at what made Lost popular and attempted to recreate similar and equally profitable results. Fortunately, this series apes Lost more in tone and style than in plot and character, so there are a lot of interesting themes and ideas of its own, mostly having to do with the “seeing your own future” bit.
Conveniently, none of the main cast had someone close to them die among the 20 million dead in the blackout, so we don’t have many funeral scenes or dealing-with-loss drama. OK, Lloyd lost his ex-wife in the blackout, leaving him custody of their son, but he’s not that broken up about it. This all might not be entirely believable, but it does free up the characters to deal with matters at hand without dwelling on tragedy. Conversely, it also means that sometimes they seem to forget that 20 million people just died. I suppose this is a flaw viewers will have to live with if we want to follow these folks through all their crazy adventures, up to their future reveals in six months.
The characters spend most of their time asking “What caused the blackout?” “Will there be another blackout?” and, of course, “What did you see?” Not asked out loud as often, but certainly on the minds of everyone involved, is the question, “If you know the future, can you change it?” Yes, it’s the old free-will-versus-destiny thing that shows up in so many time travel shows, which this essentially is. After much fretting about whether the future could be changed, a major twist occurs in the episode “The Gift,” which appears at first to determine an answer as to whether the future is set in stone. The drama continues, though, because this revelation is either a relief or a fear for the characters, based on whether they saw something horrifying or uplifting. As the series continues, it introduces the intriguing concept of “course correction,” suggesting that if someone tries to change the future, the universe will somehow set events in motion to change it back to what the character saw. This is pretty clever, actually, in that anytime a major event occurs that might change the future, there’s always a “what if” lingering over the characters’ heads, so that they’re still haunted by their visions.
There are times during the show when I had questions that I thought the characters would ask, but they never did. If anyone uttered the word “paradox” during the series run, I must have missed it. It was certainly on my mind, however. Take Mark’s board of clues. He sees it in his vision, and he sets forth recreating it, which leads to evidence that drives the entire plot forward. The paradox is that if he’d never seen the future, he never would have built the board, which would never have set the plot forward to begin with. So, where did it come from originally? Throughout the show, the characters change their behavior based on what they’ve seen in their futures, making decisions they otherwise wouldn’t. In doing so, they are creating the circumstances of their flash forwards, either intentionally or unintentionally. I’m not saying this is a bad—it’s actually quite fascinating and it prompts viewers to ask if they’d do the same thing—it’s just that this is never discussed by the characters, which you think it would be. Along similar lines, the obvious question “why didn’t someone intentionally look at the lottery numbers or sports scores during their flash forward” goes unasked.
Another common complaint about the series is that the audience tends to know things before the characters do, so that viewers have to wait for the people on screen to catch up to them. This is because there are so many characters and so many intersecting plotlines that when two characters are wondering what another two are up to, the audience already knows that because the folks watching at home are the only ones privy to all the characters. Additionally, the dialogue is not as strong as it could be. The FBI characters have a lot of standard cop show lines, always talking about nailing suspects and sorting out evidence. A lot of time is spent at the hospital with Olivia and Bryce, and there’s a lot of medical show dialogue, about caring for patients and the stress of working late hours. It’s not that the dialogue is bad, it’s just ordinary.
Despite the show’s flaws, as I kept watching, I wanted to know what happened next. The question of whether the future could be changed is so pervasive that the suspense builds as the end of the season nears, because it’s always in question whether the flash forwards will occur as seen, or if something else will happen. The show keeps you guessing right up to the last episode. The big finale is exciting, but some plot threads are left unsatisfactorily dangling. The closing shot, however, is ambiguous in a good way, and can be either a definitive ending or a “to be continued,” depending on how you choose to interpret it.
Another plus of this series is its blockbuster action. Hoping that the show would be the next big hit, the network clearly dumped a stinkload of money into this thing, because the look of the series is big, glossy and lavish, and the action set pieces are over-the-top. The opening disaster sequence in the premiere episode, filmed on an actual L.A. overpass, is an elaborate combination of practical effects and CGI, starting with vehicular mayhem and explosions, and building up to mass destruction on a citywide scale. Other episodes make with some sweet gunfights and pyrotechnics, but they saved the best for last in the season finale, with a huge John Woo-inspired shootout that totally destroys one of the show’s long-standing sets.
Joseph Fiennes does a solid enough job as our stalwart cop hero. The character has a lot going on. In addition to leading the investigation, he’s also worrying about the stability of his family, and the fates of his FBI pals. He’s the hero that the show revolves around. Unfortunately, this means that Olivia, who is otherwise a heroine of the show, ends up looking like the bad guy because she was with Lloyd in her flash forward. Mark is so built up as the hero that it’s hard to understand how Olivia is eventually torn, even as we see their relationship strained, it’s still difficult to buy.
Lloyd is a character in over his head, right from the beginning. You think it’d be stressful enough that he’s suddenly left to raise his son, but then he has to deal with his future after seeing Olivia. This, naturally, causes tension among him, Mark, and Olivia whenever they meet. Moreover, Lloyd’s high tech science experiments might have been the cause, or part of the cause, of the blackout. At one point, Lloyd goes on TV and announces his involvement. This causes a worldwide backlash, with commentators tastelessly comparing him to Hitler or Bin Laden, and it spurs a bunch of thugs to kidnap him and Simon. After this, though, it’s life as usual for Lloyd. He meets with Olivia at the hospital, he offers help at the FBI, and he even takes his son to the park with no problem. His global infamy is completely forgotten, and that bugged me. Admit it—no matter what your political or ethical leanings, if you saw Bin Laden sitting on a bench at your neighborhood park, you’d at least react.
Aside from the main plot, one of the strongest subplots is about what will happen to Demetri. He saw nothing in his flash forward. OK, that could mean he’ll be asleep in the future, but as time goes on, more and more information is revealed, and Demetri comes to believe that yes, it means he’s going to die on a date before the flash forward date. He faces his destiny sooner than the other characters in “Garden of Forking Paths,” one of the show’s most suspenseful and engaging episodes. It’s unfortunate, then, that his behavior is inconsistent up to that point. At times, he’s hoping to cheat death, by doing everything he can to avoid his fate. At other times, he has a devil-may-care attitude, believing that nothing he does matters because he’s just going to die anyway. His relationship with his fiancée is also inconsistent, going back and forth from madly in love at some times and angrily bickering at other times. OK, so a lot of real couples are probably like this, but it still stinks of poor continuity.
Bryce is one of the few main characters whose subplot isn’t life-or-death. He sees himself in love with a beautiful woman. This changes his entire outlook on life, and he goes to ridiculous lengths to find her, based on what few clues he’s able to remember from his vision. Bryce also has to deal with some serious health problems, but this wasn’t dealt with as seriously or in depth as it could have been. That’s all right, though, because Bryce’s upbeat romantic pursuits made for a comforting counterpoint to the murders and conspiracies everywhere else in the show.
Like Mark, Janis spends most of this show as the stalwart FBI agent, working to solve the mystery and hunt bad guys. She has quite a number of secrets, though. One big one is revealed early on, demonstrating her confusion of seeing herself pregnant in the future. In the latter third of the series, the writers take her character in some truly outrageous new directions, with one of the biggest plot twists in the whole show. The scripts demand a lot from actress Christine Woods, but she pulls it off, ably portraying so many varying aspects of the character without any scene or twist feeling out of place.
Aaron has one of the more “out there” subplots, as he’s driven to learn how his flash forward, in which he sees his dead daughter still alive, is possible. This takes his character into a tangent far removed from the rest of the cast. He discovers a conspiracy—a different one from the conspiracy the FBI is investigating—in the guise of a private security firm called Jericho (Jake and Hawkins do not have cameos). Suddenly, it’s like this show is like something out of one of the Bourne movies, as Aaron faces off with high tech thugs and undercover agents, and he ends up sneaking overseas and all the way into the Afghanistan war zone. This subplot isn’t without its interesting moments, but it feels like it’s part of a completely different series than FlashForward.
Then there’s Simon. The bonus features reveal that actor Dominic Monaghan worked together with the writers, who created the character based on his suggestions. It shows. Simon is a ladies’ man, he’s ruthless and deadly, he’s secretive and mysterious, he has a rogue attitude and is sarcastic towards authority—basically, he’s the type of badass character actors love to play. When he’s first introduced, he acts menacing, and I thought, “Here’s the villain.” As the show progressed though, it’s clear that he’s kind of half good guy and half bad guy, and no one on either side can fully trust him. Similarly, viewers will likely also be torn about Simon. Some will find him to be all dark and cool, while others might find him obnoxious and monstrous.
Honestly, the character I enjoyed the most was Wedek, the FBI chief. At first he’s the typical “cop show” chief, barking orders at the agents and so on. In one episode, though, he travels to Washington D.C. to defend his actions, and it’s revealed just how different he is than the rest of his peers. He’s actually encouraging his agents to bend the rules and think outside the box, whereas characters like this are usually the stern bureaucrats, beholden only to rules and procedure. Wedek, on the other hand, is one of the first to realize that the world has permanently changed, and he knows his team has to change with it. Yes, there are times when he scolds his agents for going to far in their rule-bending, but it’s established that he has good reason to. Also, because he is one of the few characters who saw something ordinary in his flash forward, that makes him come across as more of down-to-Earth “everyman” character, despite his lofty leadership role.
• What time of day does the blackout occur? It seems to be in the morning, with the characters just starting the workday, but there are references to a major sporting event happening at that time, and kids are apparently home from school.
• At one point, Wedek rebukes Mark and makes him turn in his gun and badge. Later, Mark’s back to running around in full-on supercop mode. When did his punishment get resolved?
• What’s the deal with the Persian woman in Hong Kong? How does she know everything she knows? Why does she have all those bodyguards? That’s a plot thread that never went anywhere.
• Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane cameos in two episodes as an FBI agent. Why is he here? What is he supposed to be adding to the story? Doesn’t he have, like, ten shows of his own on Fox he should be working on?
For a shiny, glossy, multimillion-dollar series, the picture and audio are outstanding on these discs, with vivid colors and deep blacks, and sound that brings to life the many explosions and gunfights. Disc two features two promotional extras, no doubt carried over from the previously-released “Season One, Volume One” set. These are loaded with spoilers for the second half of the season, so be careful if you’re going into the show blind. The two-part episode “Revelation Zero” gets a jokey commentary from Monaghan and producer Jessika Borsiczky (Revelations) on disc three. The remainder of the bonus material can be found on disc five, with a series of behind-the-scenes featurettes, with cast and producer interviews, and a look at the insane amount of work that went into some of the big set pieces. Another featurette follows Japanese actress Yuko Takeuchi for a day on the set, as this was her first American acting job. “Interviews from the Mosaic Collective” are a bunch of fictional interviews with previously unseen characters from around the globe talking about their flash forwards. “Kangaroo” has the show’s creators dodging answers as to what the kangaroo has to do with anything, along with behind-the-scenes footage of the critter hopping around the set. Some deleted scenes and a blooper reel finish off the extras.
I’m torn. There’s a lot to enjoy about FlashForward. It has an interesting premise, crazy plot twists, and some cool action here and there. There’s also a lot that frustrates. The scripts take a little too long to get from point A to point B, the bland dialogue slows things down at times, and some plot holes are too plot hole-y for my tastes. The show entertains, but it’s disposable entertainment. In that case, make it a rental, not a purchase.