Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Future events such as these will affect you in the future: FLASHFORWARD

As LOST wraps up its final season with a fair amount of fan argument & disappointment, it's easy to forget how well the show has blended soap opera with adventure, and straight-ahead adventure with an intellectual puzzle game. LOST is one of a very small number of shows where, even when I'm frustrated with the way characters are paired off, I'm emotionally invested in those pairings. And while it looks like (pardon the pun) the creators might not stick the landing, they've kept the show going through 6 seasons, making the numerous changes and compromises (creative & practical) look like part of a relatively coherent, focused show.

All you need to do to realize how difficult this feat is to look at ABC's attempt to create a successor for the show. A show which debuted to high ratings on LOST's old night, which supposedly had 5 seasons worth of material already planned out... and now seems guaranteed to be cancelled after one season.


[Warning: From here on, you might encounter some spoilers. I'll try not to blow the twists to the last couple episodes, but I've got to discuss some stuff to explain the problems.]

For someone who just got into LOST within the last year and then spent months doing almost nothing but catching up with it, FLASHFORWARD seemed like a great bet. While I'm not a huge David Goyer fan, there was no arguing with the fact he'd worked on the Batman reboot and the Blade films. It had a great high concept, it was based on a sci-fi book by a respectable s-f writer. It had a decent cast, including two LOST alums (Dominic Monaghan & Sonya Walger) whose work I'd consistently enjoyed on that show. And ABC seemed willing to stand behind it, which is not always the case when a major network creates a sci-fi or fantasy show (*cough cough* Fox).

Here's the synposis: On October 6th, 2009, almost everyone on Earth goes unconscious for a couple minutes. Those who survive (because passing out without warning could prove deadly in any number of ways, especially if you are driving, flying, working with heavy machinery, etc.) are given a two-minute glimpse of the future, specifically, six months from the date of the black-out.

Great concept, right? But notice what is not mentioned in the concept.

That's right. None of our cast-members are identified even in passing. Sure, they're involved and some of them are key to unraveling the mystery of the "blackouts". But then some of them are people who just happened to have disturbing or surprising visions of the future.

And that's where we start going down the rabbit hole.

Remember LOST? The whole concept (at least initially) was based around the survivors of Oceanic 815.  Sure, their universe expanded with time, but even in season 6, those original survivors are the people we generally keep returning to for significant moments, emotionally or plot-wise. Even comparatively newer characters like Ben or Desmond were initially established through their connections or interactions with the Oceanic survivors.

By comparison, FLASHFORWARD can't decide whether it's about the people investigating the "blackouts"or people who had interesting blackouts. Conceptually, there are a few characters for whom the two are related (Joseph Fiennes' character, for example), but that doesn't mean that both aspects resonate equally.

Remember also, on LOST, how you got to compare the characters' lives pre-crash and post-crash. You got to know and care about the changes they've been through.

On FLASHFORWARD, almost the entire show is focused on people post-"blackout", so we can't tell who has been changed by what they've seen and how, except by easy, broad exposition. "She's a lesbian, but her flashforward involved her having a baby!" "He's a recovering alcoholic, and his flashforward involved him drinking again!"

This whole "tell, don't show" approach pervades FLASHFORWARD. A couple of the actors (John Cho and Dominic Monaghan, most significantly) are able to suggest new layers to a bunch of overly explained exposition. The actual flashforwards are not only shown but also explained in depth, and they are often re-explained every two or three episodes. Imagine if John Locke reminded everyone with every episode that he used to be in a wheelchair but isn't anymore. Now imagine every character in the show repeating their secrets and vulnerabilities as well. Not pretty, right?

For the most part, the showrunners seem to have learned the wrong lessons from LOST. They saw that everyone talked about the mysteries and questions raised by each episode, forgetting that those mysteries were only interesting because we were drawn into the lives and world. FLASHFORWARD can put together thrilling sequences or good endings, but by the next episode, the effects of those moments have dissipated. Even when they reveal a major supporting character is actually a villain, it lands with the force of limp spaghetti, because it happens in an episode that reminds us half the recurring FBI characters hadn't showed up for the last five or six episodes. When another character commits SUICIDE to avoid his future (and successfully negates it by doing so!), none of the other characters actually seem shaken by it the following episode.

I'm afraid the only thing that FLASHFORWARD is successful at predicting is the inability of other genre shows to capitalize on LOST's achievements.