Why FlashForward Was Ahead of Its Time

We take a look back at 2009 sci-fi TV series FlashForward, a show that may have been ahead of its time...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

“On October 6, the whole planet blacked out for two minutes and seventeen seconds. The whole world saw the future.” Or so says 2009 series FlashForward. Whether through ironic coincidence or a twist of schadenfreude-fuelled fate, it seems rather cruel and unfortunate that a show premised on seeing the future lacked the foresight to predict the era it was best suited to: the age of binge-watching.

Based on the 1999 Robert J. Sawyer novel of the same name, ABC series FlashForward was originally developed by HBO but sold because it was seen as a better fit for a broadcast network. It aired in over 100 countries worldwide and got off to a more than promising start, premiering to a large US domestic audience of nearly 13 million and receiving both strong critical acclaim and audience buzz for its alluring pilot and provocative plot.

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The meeting point between mind-bending sci-fi mystery like Lost, from which FlashForward was meant to be picking up the mantle, and an all-guns-blazing counter-terrorism drama like 24, which was at its height in 2009, the show follows a core group of FBI agents who embark on a mission to find out what the blackout was, who was responsible and why. All the while, they’re trying to grapple with their own personal visions and ideas of fate, destiny and how their glimpse into the time-space continuum fits into the whole thing.

The main protagonist is Agent Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes), a recovering alcoholic in a strained marriage who obsessively takes on the investigation by virtue of him fortuitously studying the wall of clues (complete with cliched red string) to this very case in his blackout.

As the series continues, audiences were naturally drip-fed more pieces of the puzzle and introduced to a series of new characters who may have somehow played a part in causing the blackout or can at least answer questions – some good, some bad and some… we can’t be quite sure about. Between the riddles surrounding Mark’s prophetic clues, the physics behind such a grandiose scientific phenomenon, and the recurrent bouts of existentialism suffered by practically every character we come across, there’s plenty of head-scratching in the short term for a rewarding payoff in the long term.

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FlashForward was by no means perfect and not everyone stuck around for the long term payoff as it haemorrhaged viewers throughout its run. By the time it was taken off air at the series midway point in December, the viewership had nearly halved to seven million and fewer than five million Americans tuned in for the final episode upon its return.

One issue was that the show tried to be too many things. The storylines adjacent to the central plot bore a poetic similarity to Agent Benford’s own mosaic board in that the lines often crossed each other in all directions, appearing erratic and at times futile. Juggling personal stories against the big picture brought a delicate, real-world focus to the aftermath of such a catastrophic event but it also sent episodes off on meaningless tangents.

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Take Bryce (Zachary Knighton), for example, who is basically a support character to the support character of Olivia Benford (Sonya Walger), Mark’s wife. Bryce himself somehow manages to welcome in his own support characters to a completely separate story that, while offering a will-they-won’t-they love triangle and another personal chapter to the whole seeing the future mosaic, often felt shoe-horned into episodes and seemed nothing more than wasted airtime away from the main plot, an issue much more noticeable when watching one forty-minute episode per week.

The infrequence of such narratives, coupled with the focus they received when they occurred suggested battles in the writer’s room and a lack of overall cohesion. Furthermore, outside the opening scene with its high-impact dystopian carnage and the action-packed climactic shootout in the finale, it’s hard to see just where the show delivered on the benchmark it had set for itself in terms of production value. Overall, it’s easy to see why, in the thirty-seven weeks it took to air all twenty-two episodes, eight million people had lost patience.

Original author Robert J. Sawyer spoke out in 2013 citing two further reasons why ABC gave up on the show and decided to drop the axe. Firstly because the “family hour” scheduling slot had targeted the wrong audience for an intense, high-concept, violent drama with occasional scenes of a sexual nature and a lesbian main character.

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“[FlashForward] is not what America wanted in that timeslot. So, by the end of the first season, the ratings were low.” The second issue was one simply of money. ABC were riding the crest of the wave that was the hugely popular Lost, and were trying to follow it up with another sci-fi hit. In doing so they had commissioned both FlashForward and V at the same time, and both pulled in near-identical ratings, so when it came to deciding which show to renew the network went with the cheaper-to-produce V, a series that would only end up receiving a further ten-episode run instead of the proposed thirteen-episode second season before it too was cancelled.

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Like many canceled shows, FlashForward left on a nail-biting and completely open-ended cliff-hanger at the climax of a poignant final scene accentuated by the only soundtrack choice I can recall across the entire series. In the spirit of not giving too much away, it is probably best to avoid any discussion about the ending altogether, other than to say the final shots explicitly alluded to a second season.

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The show’s passionate remaining global audience were more than keen to see that second season made, and several online petitions were set up to try and rekindle ABC’s interest in the story. Some even staged flashmob-like Blackout demonstrations as groups simultaneously fell to the ground in the street, public parks and shopping centres for two minutes and seventeen seconds, echoing the events of the series. 

With social media not quite the vocal powerhouse it is today, the furore soon died down and the series faded into obscurity. Intriguing, however, are the discussions in comments sections and message boards about FlashForward, which appear to come in two distinct waves. The first wave is of viewers in 2009 either awed by the show and feverishly discussing what could be around the corner for the team, or angry at the show’s eventual cancellation. But look to more recent comments from people finding the show for the first time and a common theme appears: binge-watching.

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Last year Netflix announced that more than five million people “binge-raced” in 2017, that is to say they completed a series within twenty-four hours compared to the two hundred thousand users that did so in 2013 when Netflix released their first original series.

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Our media consumption habits have changed and, with them, our viewpoint. We have a greater propensity to concentrate our attention-span and deal with the increasingly convoluted and often tangential stories the FlashForward universe and its myriad characters has to offer. Bingeing actually enhances FlashForward’s watchability. So often do the episodes end in suspense but the viewer is no longer forced to break the cinematic illusion and wait a week, or in the mid-season case of FlashForward, fifteen weeks, for the next episode – it’s mere seconds away behind the autoplay timer and so the narrative continues to unfold and keep you hooked.

Who knows, with Netflix and Amazon becoming the savior of the canceled show, perhaps its high-binge-potential second series could still happen. Or at the very least a story concluding movie à la Timeless and Firefly.

FlashForward is currently available to stream on Amazon Video.