Light spoilers below for the first five episodes of NBC’s Manifest, so it’s best to catch up before reading.
In the years since 2004, any TV show that even vaguely looked like it would feature a “character-driven mythology” was immediately qualified to be the next Lost. That behavior hasn’t stopped in 2018, and NBC’s Manifest became the next viable option, thanks to its combination of flashbacks, enigmatic airplanes, and big audiences. However, after five episodes, Manifest has already proven that despite any light comparisons, it’s quite a far clip from Lost‘s cursed island.
You know what? That’s a great thing, too, since being a Lost fanatic for six years came equipped with certain caveats and suspensions of disbelief that sometimes hindered the viewing experience. While Manifest hasn’t achieved the manic hunger for answers that Lost did with its mega-expensive pilot, the threat of imminent narrative disasters is also largely absent. Now let’s push our seats back to a non-upright position and dive into what makes Manifest stand apart from Lost.
There’s One Central Sci-Fi Mystery, Not 30
Essentially, Manifest is about a plane that thwarted the space-time continuum, and the widespread curiosity about what the hell happened to it. No one in the government sector or the private sector looks to be very close to figuring anything out, either, so there’s no big need for Manifest to up the ante with more and more overarching mysteries. Yes, characters like Michaela, Cal and more are experiencing odd voices guiding them to do things, but it all connects to the plane mystery. (I hope.)
In Lost‘s first five episodes, meanwhile, viewers had already witnessed a polar bear, a smoke monster, a character’s reversed paralysis, ghostly hallucinations and more. Plus, it was widely reported that Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s creative team introduced such wild ideas without having any clue how to pay them all off later. (Some took several more seasons to earn explanations.) Manifest could certainly become guilty of this down the road, but the limited mythology bursts are keeping it safe for now.
Most Other TV Genres Are Used, Too
While Lost was obviously more than just wacky sci-fi and fantasy, that genre was the binding liquid through which all the other elements passed. Alternately, Manifest is assembled so that its various genre elements can work independently from one another while still working congruently within the mystery. Whatever went wrong on the Montego Air flight, its effects seep into the characters lives and guide their respective narratives, but it doesn’t dwarf everything else.
Beyond the awkwardness of Michaela and Jared’s romantic dissolution, the pair falls into the “police drama” slot. Saanvi’s research and Cal’s cancer play up Manifest‘s “medical drama” strengths. The NSA’s Director Vance leads the call for the “government drama” angle. Once Kelly Taylor ended up murdered, Manifest sharpened its “conspiracy thriller” focus. The “family drama” elements are perhaps as present as the mystery angles, given how badly Flight 828 disrupted everyone’s relationships. I suppose there’s no side-splitting comedy to be had within Manifest, but it’s easy enough to overlook.
No Clear-Cut Villains, Just Normal People
The people that got onto Oceanic Flight 815 were generally just as ordinary as those who were flying on Montego Air Flight 828. But being on Lost‘s magically devious island had a way of changing people into literal monsters, brutha. After a few seasons, Hurley seemed like the only character who hadn’t shown villainous tendencies yet in order to heighten the drama. Which isn’t to say that the show constantly failed in that respect, but was anybody more of a side-switching prima donna than Sawyer?
Grace, Ben, Michaela, Cal and the rest comprise a much more humanistic group of characters that all deserve varying amounts of sympathy. That decision was by far the best way for creator Jeff Rake and his team to have handled things. In many others’ hands, Danny would’ve been jealous asshole that neither Grace nor Olive would realistically love. Similarly, the Michaela-Jared-Lourdes love triangle would have either quickly turned violent or lurid. Thankfully, Manifest knows that these characters’ situations are already complicated enough without needing antagonists arbitrarily heaped on top.
Manifest Has Little Risk Of Quickly Flying Off The Rails
Not all viewers may recognize the value in the verisimilitude that creator Jeff Rake and his creative team started Manifest off with. It not only adds realistic stakes and tensions to a story that can sometimes drift into melodramatic waters, but the focus on realism also provides meaningful limitations to where the science fiction plot can go. (At least in these early weeks.) The fact that Manifest loses little narrative thrust between its pilot and second episode is a feat itself.
It’s the best of both worlds, really. Setting a potentially paranormal event atop a balanced foundation initially allows for proper development time for the characters’ stories. But if Flight 828’s disappearance was one of four different complex mysteries embedded within Manifest‘s pilot, then the show would likely have crumbled beneath the weight of its own insanity. For now, with its slow-burn dispersal of plane-related “answers,” Manifest looks like it could go quite a while before vaulting over the proverbial shark. If Michaela finds a lighthouse full of mirrors in the next few episodes, though, I’ll bite my tongue off.
I suppose the only TRUE comparison that can happen between Lost and Manifest would require us to simultaneously play both shows’ series finales to see which one makes viewers angrily rub their temples the least. But since we’re likely at least a couple of years away from Manifest wrapping its tale, I’m just going to keep advising people to look past the parallels to Lost, as well as Manifest‘s own sporadic faults, to latch onto this grounded and still-engrossing mystery.