“No More Good Days”
September 24th, 2009
ABC is pretty much cursed.
See, anytime they create a new show that emphasizes mystery, or features science fiction elements, or has a large ensemble cast, or evokes more questions than it does answers, it’s going to be compared to Lost. And, for almost all of those shows (The Nine, Invasion, etc.) they truly are shows that come in the wake of ABC’s monster hit, shows that attempt to use the sort of serialized storytelling at Lost’s core in order to bring in more audiences.
However, they are almost always what one would consider a failure, if only because Lost works for reasons which go far beyond its buzzwords or its structure. What makes it work is a focus on character over plot (something that sustains the show when the plot takes a back seat), and a sense of execution that comes from having strong people behind the wheel and (perhaps more importantly) a cast and crew who are willing to learn lessons as they go along.
So, if ABC wants us to proclaim FlashForward the next Lost, they’re going to have to do a lot more than an action-packed clip montage at episode’s end and a pilot with an emphasis on secrets, mysteries and a large ensemble cast. This isn’t to say that I don’t find FlashForward fascinating, or that its pilot was unenjoyable. However, trapped in the hype about being the new Lost, the show fails to feel as if it has a clear grasp on what kind of show it wants to be beyond “a show like Lost,” a definition that might get its foot in the door but needs to be followed through on.
And the only people who know about that are those who blacked out for two minutes and seventeen seconds and saw a future where the show is either a huge success or a crippling disappointment. And, you know, the show’s producers. In the meantime, we just have to take their word for it with “No More Good Days,” a pilot which sells a premise but doesn’t necessarily prove it’s capable of delivering on its promise.
To some degree, FlashForward is Lost in reverse: a catastrophic event happens, and then afterwards everyone lives with a secret about themselves that changes the way they interact with the people around them. On Lost, those secrets are about their past: what got them on that plane in some way defines them, and the show uses the premise to delve into their pasts in order to tell us more about them as characters and with time flesh things out. Here, though, the tension is almost entirely different, driven by the question of whether it is possible to change the fate put before them. Lost has dealt with similar time-travel aspects and the like before, but only once the show was in a position to do so. For FlashForward, it’s there right up front, which makes the pilot both really interesting and kind of disappointing.
It’s interesting because it’s a great concept for a television show. Taken from the book of the same name, the basic premise gives them a mysterious event and the idea of how those futures impact their daily lives. It’s an idea which gives them that amazing sequence of Jo Fiennes crawling out of the car, and then surveying all of Los Angeles burning and foiled by traffic, and which creates some compelling scenarios. For John Cho’s character, he looks six months into the future and sees nothing. For a young doctor ready to commit suicide when the blackout took place, what he saw gave him a whole new lease on life. And Fiennes’ flash, the one we’re meant to see as the closest connection to the mythology, is both personal (his alcoholicism has relapsed, his wife as a result leaving him) and about the “Mosaic” being constructed by everyone’s visions of the future. These kinds of questions feel really interesting, if we isolate them from the rest of the pilot and move them together.
However, where the show struggles more is how to get from Point A to Point B. In many ways, I think that knowing about the show ahead of time (for critics and informed viewers) probably makes this a far less exciting experience. When the show tries to trick us into thinking that the car accident could happen any moment, we know why it happens and that it won’t be happening immediately. When a small child knows who Olivia is before he goes into surgery despite her never having met her before, I figured out that his father would be the “other man” in her flash since I had seen that reveal in the lengthy preview. Those moments might have had a bigger impact if I had been seeing them for the first time (the people I was watching with reacted as you would expect, going in largely cold), but for me they lacked punch.
And the rest of the episode didn’t work whether you’d seen it or not, in my eyes. Where the show really slows down is how to bring people together realizing that they all saw something different. The way they do it has very little reverence for the material, as Mark’s revelation of being “somewhere else” suddenly has everyone saying that they had the same experience without having ever mentioned it before. It’s played as a total coincidence, and the one bit of investigation (calling London) was marred by some less than believable special effects on the London skyline and a lack of flair. It was all too easy, the pilot moving the moment of discovery out of the way in order to get to the “Fate vs. Human Agency” struggle that they want to be able to set up. It means that the episode isn’t actually all that much on its own right, relying solely on premise to carry a narrative which isn’t actually very complex at all. The “Four Hours Later” chyron has been a trope for a long time, the various flashes evoke Lost and even some other shows, and it never feels like it rises up to the level of the premise.
The preview at episode’s end was, in fact, the most interesting thing about the episode. Suspect Zero was expected (you don’t black out everyone on Earth without having someone awake) but very much welcome, I’m curious to know how the terrorist suspect is going to fit into everything, and seeing Kim Dickens and Dominic Monaghan amongst the clips shows that the extended cast will be extending into some really intriguing directions. And, like I say, the premise is the kind of thing that provides some standard questions of fate and agency that played out with flair could become very interesting.
But the pilot doesn’t prove to me that they will be, and clips are of course misleading. While stylistically interesting and theoretically fascinating, the show never proves that it can execute those ideas to their potential. And trapped in a world where it will be consistently compared to Lost, the show can’t help but feel unpolished. It’s not the kind of pilot that has me really concerned about where the show is going, as it has a good cast and an intriguing premise that should keep me engaged to at least some degree. But, while people like to believe that Lost succeeded based on its premise, what allowed it to persevere and avoid the same ratings downsfall which faces a show like Heroes is its execution. And that is one thing that the FlashForward pilot doesn’t particularly do extremely well, and that’s a pretty substantial warning flag as the show moves forward.
- There was a couple of recurring, and less than graceful, mentions of faith in the context of the episode: some believe that it is God saving them, and others believe that it is God punishing them. It’s not entirely clear what role religion might play, but the pilot really does not hit any interesting thematic notes beyond the obvious and any connections are left abstract at best.
- One trope the show appears to be putting to good use is the idea that children are far more aware of their dreams than others. Young Charlie provides the episode’s title, and the young boy even knows Olivia’s name when he wakes up despite Olivia not knowing the boy’s father’s identity at all. Does this mean that children experienced the flashes differently? I’m not sure, and worry it’s just “creepy kids are creepy” all over again, but I found it one of the few nuggets that seemed subtle enough to be acted upon later.
- Sonya Walger and Dominic Monaghan means that this show has a sense of Lost in its casting (plus Kim Dickens, who guested on the show), but I thought the cast overall was pretty solid. It’s not allowed to be as subtle as Lost, but for the most part I found them satisfactory. The one weak link is Seth MacFarlane (yes, the one who created Family Guy), who shows up for no reason in an expositional FBI role that made those scenes even more clunky than they already were.
- My one question from the show: would this have been better as a two-hour pilot? It’s tough to know whether that would have simply created more narrative problems or less, but if they had given more time to the sense of discovery I think the premise could have seemed more organic and part of the show rather than something that came from a marketing department.