Thursday, April 1, 2010

"FlashForward"? Fast Forward!

I fully stand by my previous assertion that "FlashForward" is a terrible show, but to its credit, it's much better than "V" and has done much more with its material so far. The premise is interesting, following the aftermath of a worldwide "blackout" event where everyone briefly loses consciousness and experiences a flash of their lives several months into the future. The main character is a Fed whose flash forward shows him uncovering the origins of the blackout, so he follows apparent destiny and starts an investigation. His partner, on the other hand, had no premonition and fears this may signal his impending death. There's a shadowy conspiracy involved, lots of different characters to follow, and no shortage of twists and turns as the show approaches the date when the flashes of the future will finally match up to the present.

I've watched roughly eight or nine of the ten episodes of "FlashForward" aired so far, so I feel I've got a good idea of where this show is going wrong. It's good to have a point of comparison, so let's use the first season of "Heroes." Superpowered characters and other nerd bait aside, they have a similar structure, with one of the characters in "Heroes" churning out comic book panels that foretell of a coming apocalypse. The goal is also to prevent the apparently inevitable from happening, with various groups of peripherally connected characters trying to puzzle out the best way to do this as the clock runs down. In addition to the shared plots, "FlashForward" often feels like a toned down, more serious version of "Heroes," with its occasional globetrotting and notably diverse cast. Unfortunately, this is where the similarities end.

As with "V," the major failing of "FlashForward" is thinking too small, with the bulk of the drama and tension playing out in domestic settings. The investigation into the cause of the blackout preoccupies the main characters, but there's no urgency in the search. Their primary concerns are all personal ones. The lead federal agent character fears that his alcohol consumption in his flash forward means that he's doomed to fall off the wagon and jeopardize his marriage. Meanwhile, his physician wife has a premonition of an intimate tryst with the father of one of her patients. Understandably these become recurring worries for the characters, but after a few episodes of guilty looks and tense conversation, recurrence becomes repetitiveness. The agent and his wife spend so much time dwelling on their predestined miseries, it drags the rest of the narrative down with it. And while the show plays will-they-won't-they by placing its characters on paths that appear to lead to their downfall, the teases are lacking because the narrative doesn't play fair. The flash forwards are brief and easily taken out of context. Multiple minor characters have already had their visions revealed to be incomplete or misleading. I can already guess the real circumstances of most of the flash forwards that have yet to be explained.

Moreover, nearly all of the looming, unhappy outcomes have very limited impact. Bad marriages can be fixed and bad habits overcome. There are no flash forwards that match the threat of the apocalypse envisioned in "Heroes," with the exception of the character who expects to die. This robs the story of most of its tension, and leaves it without a common focal point for all the disparate stories to converge upon. Rather, the apocalypse of "FlashForward" was the original blackout, and the characters who were initially united by the harrowing event are now striking out in ever more scattered directions. As the end date approaches, there's nothing to draw them back together, and already it's easy to lose track of the characters who don't make consistent appearances from week to week. The investigation storyline has plodded along over half a season without really getting anywhere, so we're left with these small, domestic dramas to carry the weight. And they don't really hold up.

The structural problems might have been mitigated with stronger characters, but this is another major flaw of the series. Though it has a solid ensemble cast, "FlashForward" has very badly defined leads who don't leave much of an impression. Genre shows can get by with cardboard characters when they're all about action scenes and special effects, but for something like "FlashForward" that has decided to go the fairly realistic, dramatic route, character is everything. And though I've been watching steadily for half a season, I can't recall the main character's name off the top of my head. Or his wife's. Or that of the villain, the African-American supervisor, the bearded friend, the male nurse, the babysitter, the villains, or the female agent. The only one I do remember is Dimitri Noh, the main character's partner who is played by John Cho, because he has a funny name. Now compare this to "Heroes," where even people who don't watch the show can identify Hiro, Sylar, the Petrelli brothers, and Claire Bennett, better known as The Cheerleader.

And there's one last little problem that several of the critics picked up on when the show made its debut in the fall. Once the finale rolls around and all the flash forwards are finally explained, will the audience have any reason to stick around for the next season? Premonitions have been used in plenty of genre shows to provide tension, but few creators have premised entire shows around them for just this reason. "Heroes" ran into the same problem once the apocalypse was narrowly averted, which it resolved by promptly pulling the same trick with a new apocalypse the next year. Following suit, "FlashForward" is already running commercials with the main character announcing in hushed tones that there will be another blackout. Unfortunately, "Heroes" has been steadily losing viewers since the end of the first season, having lost too much momentum from its early success. But at least "Heroes" had the popular characters, and the special effects, and the comic book kitsch to keep the fans coming back, at least for a little while.

"FlashForward," I'm sad to say, has nothing of the sort.

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