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Pilot Review: MANIFEST is a High Concept Idea That Misses Some Basics

By on September 24, 2018

MANIFEST -- Pictured: "Manifest" Key Art -- (Photo by: NBCUniversal)

Hats off to the networks who send multiple episodes of their new shows to TV critics who, at this time of the year, are faced with the fumbling task of assessing an entire series’ merits based on a handful of episodes, seen weeks or even months in advance of a general audience.

Suspicious frowns and heavy sighs then in the direction of those networks who instead send only a single advance screening of their pilot, from which tentative reviewers are faced with the onerous task of spinning a silk purse from a sow’s ear. 

Such was the case with our latest pilot for review, Manifest, which premieres on NBC tonight.

If you’ve read any reviews for this new series then you may have seen the term high concept used by some critics as a means to help define the show in more concrete terms. In case you’re not familiar with the label, a high concept show is one in which the premise can generally be explained in one sentence. Take ABC’s juggernaut Lost for example, in which a plane carrying a group of incredibly good looking people, each with a traumatic past, crash lands on a mysterious island, to find all is not as it seems. Where high concept shows are concerned, it’s the premise that matters most.

Manifest, another TV series involving a mystery with a plane, focuses on a group of passengers on a plane who arrive safely at their destination, following a period of brief turbulence, to discover that they have been missing, and presumed dead for 5 years. Where did they go? What happened to them? Why can’t they remember? Manifest wants to eke out those nuggets, piecemeal, over episodes, and seasons, to come.

The problem is that while Manifest gets some things right — an attractive cast including Melissa Roxburgh (Valor), Josh Dallas (Once Upon a Time), Athena Karkanis (Zoo), and J.R. Ramirez (Power), all sure to appeal to a broad audience, a big central idea, and a decent budget with which to explore some of its initial plotlines — the basic premise feels well worn, even at the outset. We’ve been here before, with shows like Flashforward, The 4400, The Event, and Lost. One thing these shows all have in common is that they haven’t been on the air in quite some time. In fact, with very few exceptions, the big-ensemble-cast-chases-down-an-even-bigger-mystery style of show hasn’t proved particularly successful in recent years, with ABC’s The Crossing (another high concept summer series about American refugees from the future travelling to the present day) being the most recent example. The show was quietly pulled from ABC’s lineup after only one season.

Perhaps modern TV audiences just don’t have the patience to sit through 5 seasons to learn the plane was abducted by well meaning aliens, or God. Or A.I. versions of themselves from the future. Perhaps we know that whatever greater mystery the show is jealously holding close to its vest is likely to be one we’ve all seen before. And perhaps more than once. 

Occasionally though, when a high concept premise fails to deliver, it’s the slow-burn of character development that keeps fans tuning in. (I watched Lost for 6 years to see if Kate and Jack would end up together, long after I gave up hope that anyone was going to leave that island alive.) However Manifest seems to have placed all its eggs in the concept basket, with little that’s compelling, audacious, sexy or intriguing left over for its characters. Where drama exits it’s mostly family drama (even the main characters are brother and sister), and the show exudes a This is Us style sentimentality when exploring the emotional fallout of its characters reconnecting with their pasts that feels out of step with what the show is supposed to be.

While Manifest’s potential was probably obvious on paper, the execution is simply not sufficiently compelling. Coupled with stakes that never feel particularly high, and characters whose interactions are flat and uninteresting, it’s hard to imagine a future (even one filled with aliens) for this new series.

Manifest premieres Monday, September 24 (10-11 p.m. ET) on NBC.

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