This review contains spoilers for Manifest.
Manifest Season 1 Episode 1
The first episode of Manifest is an exemplary pilot in some ways; the premise of an airplane time-jumping five years is engaging, and the central mystery about what has been done to the passengers is a great hook. Even though only a few characters are able to grab us emotionally from the start, the groundwork is laid for many more to pull us in as the varying stories of the passengers onboard Flight 828 unfold. It’s actually the potential crime-of-the-week plot structure that’s the main source of trepidation. Can this show sustain itself over a long period of time based only on the varied interpretations of a voice in the head, essentially saying, “If you build it, they will come”?
Obviously it’s not enough to base the entire story around the mysterious 5-year time jump, intriguing though it may be. The drama that ensues as a result of spouses having moved on and a twin suddenly younger than his teenage sister is certainly worth exploring, but the developing, inexplicable voices that lead Michaela Stone (Melissa Roxburgh) to stop the bus just before it ran over a boy gave the whole supernatural angle a boost. Leading us to believe it was her alone experiencing the compulsions at first was also a smart move, especially given her possible proclivity for mental issues.
Michaela, in fact, is the most compelling character from the very start and not just because she is the narrator of the show. Her raw guilt and shame is palpable from the moment she appears on the screen even though we have no idea why she might feel this way especially since she is with her loving family. To its credit, the pilot of Manifest only hints at a car accident and a girl named Evie, leaving the rest enticingly vague. Even the fact that she has desk duty upon returning to the police force seems tangentially related.
The fact that Michaela’s boyfriend from before the time jump is now married to someone else is an interesting choice given the fact that Ben’s wife, Grace (Athena Karkanis), is hiding a relationship with the full knowledge of their daughter, Olive (Luna Blaise). Ben (Josh Dallas) distinguishes himself elsewhere by giving smart advice to Michaela about keeping the voices a secret and by realizing that they’re probably not the only ones experiencing the phenomenon among the passengers of Flight 828. Although Ben doesn’t really get fleshed out much as a character in this pilot, his intelligent choices and kind reassurance give him a truly sympathetic start towards winning us over.
Having the voices compel Michaela and Ben to set a pair of dogs free was an interesting misdirect, especially since it led to doubts about Michaela’s readiness to rejoin the police force as well as even more tension between her and Jared (J.R. Ramirez), but the actual rescue of the two girls being held captive was still predictable and fairly contrived. Given that the episode ends with all of the passengers being led to watch the plane explode, the strange forces at work feel more like a narrative device than divine intervention thus far.
The tale of Saanvi (Parveen Kaur) and the medical trials that young Cal (Jack Messina) might be able to take part in is much more interesting, perhaps from its more understated nature. The fact that Cal’s diagnosis date would preclude him from participation in the cellular regeneration project is wonderfully ironic given the circumstances, but Saanvi’s determination has the undertone of destiny that the kidnapping plot is unable to achieve. Even the brief smile between Cal and Saanvi is rich with subtext given that we know they must hear the voices, too.
The inclusion of the Romans 8:28 verse, “All things work together for good,” and the 828 street number of the junkyard where the kidnapped girls were being held captive might have been a bit on the nose for a story about the mysterious happenings onboard Flight 828. In fact, the repeating numbers hearkened back to the Kiefer Sutherland/David Mazouz show, Touch, from years past. Manifest does feel like a combination of other shows like The 4400 and Lost, which is not necessarily in its favor, but time may bear out a more distinctive feel to the show.
Nevertheless, it was a fortuitous start for this compelling concept, and Manifest will no doubt find an audience for those who enjoy stories that bear witness to a higher power. With a couple of strong characters to draw us in, the show’s continued success will come from its ability to surprise us and make us care about a larger portion of the cast. While it’s true the pilot can’t carry that load alone, the challenges the show faces are still clear: it must create for itself its own identity that viewers will want to return to each week.