“White to Play”
October 1st, 2009
At the opening of “White to Play,” we open on a shot of children lying on the playground out cold. We have reason to believe, of course, that this is a flashback to the blackout, until we see Charlie, Mark and Olivia’s daughter, standing. The show wants us to believe that Olivia is unique, or that perhaps she had some other sort of vision, but it turns out that it was the kids playing a game. They were playing “Blackout,” where everyone pretends they were out cold and then wakes up and tells everyone what they saw.
While the initial feeling is that this is a particularly ominous opening, there’s a problem: instead of appearing dichotomous to the show itself, it seems a fitting metaphor. In its second episode, FlashForward largely treats the viewers like children, repeating themes over and over again and actually managing to flash back to a flashback of a flashforward in the process. The investigative process feels like random happenstance, sprinkled with odd comic tangents and explosions in place of plot development, and the show struggles to recapture anything even approaching the tone that made its pilot stand out from the crowd.
There are a lot of interesting questions at play with this premise, and on occasion the show quite intriguingly interacts with some of them, but when it’s not thinking big its conversations turn into microcosms of overall themes, never allowing characters to act human in the process.
There are a number of points in the episode where we do what most second episodes do, reminding the viewer what happened in the pilot. However, for whatever reason, the show never wants to stop doing it. There is a point, as eluded to above, where we see Olivia thinking back to a conversation she had with her husband earlier that day (a flashback) and then it reminds us that in that moment Olivia had thought about (another flashback) her flashforward. This is fundamentally insane: all you had to do in that moment, as Olivia spots the man she knows she’s eventually in bed with, is to have Olivia look a little bit apprehensive and paranoid. The flashes were beyond unnecessary, and were actually downright distracting from the rest of the series. It’s one thing for flashbacks to remind us about each person’s flashforward, but it’s another to keep using that structure is bizarre: when Mark hypocritically tells Olivia that they shouldn’t keep secrets, we’re not idiots and know that he’s talking about his drinking problem. That the show thinks we need that reminder shows me that they literally think we are incompetent.
Where “White to Play” proves particularly interesting is when it gets to that central chess metaphor, as we learn that there were not one but two people who were awake during the blackout, and that one of them has likely been trying as hard as the FBI in order to find out what happened. When the show deals with this directly, it’s got some interesting ideas, but the problem is that the investigation to find these clues is more boring than you could ever imagine. An abandoned doll factory blows up, but rather than feeling like we (or they) are piecing together the puzzle, it feels like the show is parceling out reveals to keep the investigation fresh without actually making the investigation itself interesting. If we take only the Suspect Zero storyline, the show is like doubly interesting: however, since that was about 10% of the show, forgive me if I suggest that there are some serious problems here.
One is the weird comic tone we got at a few points in this episode. The scene where the lead FBI Agent informs Mark that he was on the toilet during the blackout, the combination of “bowel movement” and the line reading made it sound almost funny, which was confirmed when the scene then extended to the character giving mouth to mouth to someone who had been drowning in a urinal after the blackout. The moment of levity seemed more ill-advised than I could imagine: it’s one thing for us to meet DiDi Gibbons and find that she makes cupcakes, as cupcakes are comfort food and that could fit here. But that scene seemed really strange, and I really don’t feel this is a show that can honestly handle that kind of levity when it wants to (at the same time) be about a world catastrophe.
The other is the way that people talk about their flashforwards. I don’t think that people should be ignoring them, as the show is predicated on that interaction with an uncertain future. However, the way people talk about them is like how reality show contestants talk about things that producers have instructed them to talk about. On a broad scale, the website (designed to use Echelon, which Alias taught me is big and important) is a good way of gathering information, but if it’s going to be used as a contrived device for our characters to talk about their feelings and a source of random, unsubstantiated leads that magically turn into clues then I want nothing to do with it. It feels like the show delivering a message about the importance of social networking, but in reality it’s a way for them to justify Shoreh Aghdashloo calling Dmitri from a rooftop to tell him the exact day he is going to die.
There are a couple of interesting things in the character interactions, such as Olivia and Lloyd: by all accounts, he doesn’t seem to remember her and she remembers him, and Charlie knows Dylan but not his father even through Dylan knows Olivia. But instead of seeming like something that is really intriguing, I half feel as if it is yet another mistake, something the show is ignoring and will eventually turn into some straightforward point that only confirms what we already knew. For the character who dies in March, he meets someone else who saw nothing and sees her die before his eyes. For the character who is suddenly pregnant, her biological clock is suddenly clicking. None of it has actually empowered these characters or made them much different: instead, it just encourages them to post on a website and talk about it.
In other words, it’s like it’s all a game. The show risked this tone when it went from the pure chaos of the blackout to “people sitting around a desk talking” as opposed to “people dealing with the insanity outside of the front door,” and this episode (even moving forward a few days) did nothing to make me feel otherwise. I’ll keep watching to see how things might turn around, but right now considering me highly skeptical of this show turning a corner anytime soon.
- My question: why would anyone label photos of dolls which were part of an explosion key to the investigation as “Baby Doll Photographs?” Why would you label that so literally? On the one hand, it implies that perhaps he knows more now than he did then. On the other hand, it might just have been left vague for US to be surprised, ignoring all human logic.
- We saw Alan Ruck briefly as a fellow alcoholic – not sure if it’s recurring or just a brief role, but the scene didn’t really do anything.
- Love the way that the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security needed to be introduced with her entire name in her first scene, so that we could know her name. Couldn’t they have just referred to her as “Deputy Secretary Last Name?”