Yay, New TV! (In Theory): Part 3: “FlashForward”

Posted: October 1, 2009 in Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: , , ,

At the end of The Dark Knight, written by David Goyer, Jim Gordon watches Batman run off into the night, having volunteered to take the blame for Harvey Dent’s death. And in response to his seven-year-old son’s simple question, “Dad, why is Batman running away? He didn’t do anything FF2wrong,” Gordon says:

“Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.”

And while it fits in great with the visual montage, it dawned on me (on the fourth or fifth HBO repeat): Jim Gordon is laying a lot of heavy shit down on his seven-year-old kid. I imagine that the next line after the title flashes against the black screen is little Jim Jr., asking, “Dad…what the hell does any of that mean? I’m SEVEN.”

This same ponderous speechifying shows up a lot in Goyer’s new ABC show “FlashForward,” which is an interesting pilot that could lead to a maddening series. One thing that is perfectly clear: ABC would really, really like this to be their “Lost”-style water-cooler series.

But after being burned so many times before with science fiction series that similarly utilize long-form serialized storytelling, time travel, predestination themes, and unconventional flashback structure (off the top of my head: “Invasion,” “The Nine,” “Daybreak,” and “Life On Mars,” though I may be forgetting one), the network has decided to leave nothing to chance.

So we have:
– David Goyer pointing out that he sold the show based on its long-spanning story and its concrete conclusion (though Goyer has also said the show would need at least three seasons for the grand plot to fully focus, which seems to ask a lot from the audience based on one pilot – and a lot for Goyer to expect, considering his last “we’ll need three years” series, “Threshold,” didn’t crack 13 episodes);
– ABC’s promo voiceover guy telling viewers, just before commercials start, to pay attention to certain bits from the previous act (“Pay attention to the kangaroo – it may be important later!” – I am not kidding), just so the audience knows which mystery moments to keep fresh in their minds, should it be referenced again later;FF1
– And most importantly, the show itself, which hearkens back to the “Lost” pilot starting with the opening shot of our action-lead waking up, Jack-style, in the middle of a massive, fire-strewn disaster-zone, and immediately leaping into helpful action while wondering just what’s happening. (The homage isn’t accidental – there are billboards for Oceanic Airlines in the background. Though there’s also a banner for “Desperate Housewives” on the buses, so.)

It’s when things settle down and the weird hook is made clear to the audience – everyone in the world lost consciousness for 2 minutes, 17 seconds, and everyone saw a “memory” of themselves at the same exact moment six months in the future – that it becomes clear ABC actually wanted a version “Lost” that wouldn’t confuse anyone. Ever.

Everyone on the show remembers their flash-forward (your TV drinking game for the season – take a shot whenever someone says “flash-forward”) and explains it as clearly and thoroughly as they can. So the show has not only borrowed “Lost’s” flashback/forward story segments, it’s made them a literal in-story part of the narrative.

Instead of simply being presented to the audience as a deeper character layer to the on-island story (never explicitly a flashback the character was actually experiencing during the story), “FlashForward” wants the audience to know that they are seeing exactly what the characters saw, and understand that moment exactly as the characters understand them.

But in case there’s still some confusion, don’t worry – the characters also talk, at length, about their feelings about the flashes, and what they think they mean, in such clunkily expository lines of dialogue (barely paraphrasing here: “I was thinking about committing suicide. But seeing myself alive in six months, it was like a sign from God that I shouldn’t!”; “You’re hoping your flash-forward doesn’t come true; I’m hoping mine does.”) that there’s no chance for the audience to have questions, like “I wonder what this character is feeling right now?” or “I wonder how his flash-forward is going to motivate him in the season to come?”

It’s all right there, plain and awkward as day in Goyer’s script, so the audience doesn’t need to worry, like they have so often during “Lost,” that things aren’t already planned out. Which is, yes, in keeping for a show that’s going to be (again, very explicitly) about predestination. But it is mildly insulting for those of us who would like to see these things as they happen and watch drama and suspense build around a characters’ motivations and potential actions, rather than be told exactly what they are. ( “Show, don’t tell”…hmm…that sounds familiar.)

Here’s the thing, though: none of this made the overall mystery of the show less intriguing. It’s a FF3great hook for an overarching narrative – just what the hell did cause this, what does it mean, and what about those glimpses of people who seem to know more about this than our main cast? – and the upside of being told when it’s all going to shake out (I imagine it’ll time with the end of the season) gives the audience a general idea of when to expect some concrete answers.

And I do believe we’ll get there – ABC does have an okay track record of allowing these shows to complete their initial seasons (albeit in truncated form, which, as I understand it, didn’t help “Invasion” at all) – but (and because I respect you, dear reader, I’ll forgo any cutesy bit about having my own flash-forward to six months from now when the show is cancelled) I’d be shocked if it gets the three-years-plus that Goyer needs to fully, ham-fistedly tell his story.

Then again, I would’ve laid odds on “Lost” not making it a full season, so what do I know? Maybe fifth time’s the charm for ABC and science fiction. And if not, hey, we’ve got “V” to look forward to! Oh wait, probably not.

  1. braak says:

    Just to be clear, Flash Forward is based on a novel of the same name (written by the Robert J. Sawyer, a man ABOUT WHOM I HAD WORDS), so the “hook” isn’t really Goyer’s at all.

    I have to admit that I don’t really find predestination stuff interesting. The only real question is, “do these things have to come to pass, or not?” And, actually, I still don’t care about the question. The fact is that life is so fucking complicated that a future six-months from now that you could avoid is practically indistinguishable from one you couldn’t.

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    And just to be REALLY clear, from what I understand, the show bares only a passing resemblance to the book, and even the hook – which yes, not Goyer’s, but that doesn’t really enter into what I was saying about the clunky writing – is heavily tweaked (six months instead of several years into the future).

    I think to boil it all down, the master-plot – who/what made all these people fall down and flash forward, and for what purpose – is worth paying attention to, but the individual character dramas (where the predestination themes will get the most play) could get very tedious very quickly.

  3. Dave says:

    That’s the thing that really bothered me about this – the ridiculously instantaneous, life-changing reactions of people to their flash forwards (gulp) –

    “No, I can’t have gratifyingly casual sex with you while babysitting any more – Thanks to my flash forward (slug), I know God must exist and wants me to be chaste (because he loves messing with time travel?)”

    “I don’t/can’t kill myself because I’m still alive in my flash forward (swig)” (And if that isn’t a screwed-up re-imagining of cause and effect then I don’t know what is.)

    I’m sorry, but if it were me, I’d spend the next three weeks watching BBC News 24 and changing my status on Facebook to “seriously screwed up by my flash forward (chug)”

  4. Moff says:

    I hope the show doesn’t bear more than a passing resemblance to the book, because the book, while fine, doesn’t offer much or anything in the way of Lost-style mystery. Also, frankly, while I have enjoyed plenty of Robert Sawyer’s work, it’s not a novel I’d go out and recommend to friends. It’s just not that exciting — the critical transformation, unless I recall wrongly, is that a physicist goes from being a hard determinist to, uh, learning that we can change the future.

    Basically, I second Braak’s feeling: I’m not that interested in a predestination hook, and I wasn’t when I read the book either. I can’t relate to someone who has a vision of total blackness in the future and then decides to commit suicide because he must be facing inevitable death. JUST WAIT IT OUT, BUDDY.

  5. Jeff Holland says:

    Uhhh…hope they go a different way with John Cho’s character, then.

  6. Matt says:

    It’s probably all about the second coming or some such nonsense.

  7. Carl says:

    Funny you should say that, Matt. I wasn’t going to raise it, cause, what would it profit us in this context, right? But anyone who knows anything about the prophecies of Garanbandal– not at all approved by the Church, but which enjoy a huge cult following among the laity– might have the same reaction that I have to what I’m read of this show: ‘where have I heard this before?’ Well, that’s where. There’s this promise made in a Garabandal apparition about a miracle that will occur worldwide– The Prophecy of Illumination– by which God allows a simultaneous flash of insight by every person about themselves and the state of their own being. Every person in the world will have this flash of self knowledge, so jarring that it will cause tremendous social unrest, and, supposedly, its the last ‘call home’ before the tribulations begin in earnest that lead to the Second Coming. (Catholics, of course, don’t believe in the rapture. This is sort of our version of it, I guess.) Anyway, I’m not sure its intended to relate to this particular ‘nonsense’ or not, but its certainly evoking it.

  8. Jeff Holland says:

    And for those of you who aren’t immediately hooked by the prophecies of Garnbandal, hey, Dominic Monohagn’s in this show, too!

    (And I totally read that as prophecies of Gargamel, first time through. “I foresee a day when I shall eat myself a smurf!” )

  9. braak says:

    Actually, now that we’re talking about the prophecies of Garabandal, my interest has increased vastly.

    Dominic Monoghan’s okay, too, I guess.

  10. braak says:

    Carl, where can I find more specific information about Garabandal prophecies? All I’m finding is the old stuff about the generic “cup filling over” visitations.

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