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REVIEW: Manifest Serves Up Underwhelming Sci-Fi Mysteries & Melodrama

During the height of Lost’s popularity, television networks churned out similar “mystery box” sci-fi shows seemingly by the dozen, aiming to capture the same cultural cachet and big ratings as the ABC thriller, but nearly all failing to come even close. Premiering Monday, Sept. 24, on NBC, Manifest would have fit in perfectly during that era, which is perhaps thematically appropriate for a show about people who mysteriously travel to the present from 2013.

Like Lost, Manifest begins with a commercial flight that goes astray, in this case Montego Airways Flight 828, which leaves Jamaica on April 7, 2013, experiences a moment of extreme turbulence, and then lands smoothly in New Jersey ... on Nov. 4, 2018. For everyone on board, only a few hours have passed, but in the outside world, it’s now five and a half years later.

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That’s a pretty intriguing hook for a TV series, but the first episode (the only one available for review) spends most of its time shrinking this expansive sci-fi premise into cheesy family melodrama, focusing almost exclusively on only three passengers out of the nearly 200 on board the plane. “All I know is it’s the day my life changed forever,” says Michaela Stone (Melissa Roxburgh) in voiceover at the beginning of the episode, and Manifest is full of corny, obvious lines like that, which the actors do their best to make convincing.

Michaela, her brother Ben (Once Upon a Time’s Josh Dallas) and Ben’s 10-year-old son Cal (Jack Messina) decide to accept travel vouchers in exchange for taking a later flight home to New York City from their family vacation in Jamaica, thus putting them on the ill-fated Flight 828, while Michaela and Ben’s parents, Ben’s wife Grace (Athena Karkanis) and Cal’s twin sister Olive go on ahead of them. So when the plane finally lands, they discover that Michaela and Ben’s mother has died, Olive is now a teenager, and Michaela’s fiancé Jared (J.R. Ramirez) is now married to her best friend. Despite all of that, they jump back into daily life with remarkable ease, with almost no references to how the world has changed in five years.

What’s happening to everyone else who was on the plane? Creator Jeff Rake (The Mysteries of Laura) doesn’t pay much attention to them, and aside from the Stone family, the only other series regular from Flight 828 is medical researcher Saanvi Bahl (Parveen Kaur), whose in-development pediatric cancer treatment has become a medical success story in the five years she was away. Could it possibly be the key to curing Cal’s leukemia?

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