Time for a look at one of this season’s new shows – and while I don’t hate it, I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I was especially impressed. Fear the spoilers…
“From the makers of LOST!” screamed the pre-publicity. Of course, rather more accurate is “From the studio who wrote the cheques for LOST!”, but the various proclamations of “It’s the new LOST!” have been gathering pace for a while over the latest glossy genre-related US TV show to his the screens. So far, it’s one of the few series of the new season that hasn’t tanked in the ratings, which isn’t a complete surprise, and it’s also got a whole lot of people on my Twitter and Facebook friends saying how much they’re enjoying it – to the extent that I almost wish that I could share their enthusiasm. Because while Flash Forward has managed a couple of attention-grabbing moments, the word that could best sum it up is ‘competent’ – it’s milk-shake television that’s got plenty of action and plot and things going on, and yet is completely lacking in any sense of real originality or the kind of conceptual cool that usually hooks me in. The setup is hi-jacked from Robert Sawyer’s original novel (although drastically changed – there, the flash forward’s source was known, and it gave a glimpse of about twenty years into the future rather than six months) – and we’ve got a situation where everybody on the planet has had a 2 1/2 minute glimpse of the future (in an event which also caused global chaos), and people are now living with the consequences.
The trouble is, while there’s a bubbling plotline about mysterious blokes in black awake during the blackout and a conspiracy which may be connected to the source of the flash forwards, most of the actual ‘consequences’ that people are currently living with are contrived, soapy or downright uninteresting. Out of the whole thing, the one plot thread which is truly intriguing is the AA sponsor who started drinking as a result of his army daughter’s death, and gets a glimpse in his flash forward of his daughter alive and well – which of course means that it’s the one we’ve seen the least of so far. Instead, there’s an epic amount of attention being given to the oh-so-terrible possibility that Sonya Walger is destined to split up with Joseph Fiennes and fall for Jack Davenport… and I can almost feel myself wanting to fall asleep right now. It’s partly the fact that this sort of plotting is very binary – either the future is written or it’s changeable, so it’s almost a matter of just waiting for the scriptwriters to make up their minds as to which version of time travel/history alteration they’re using, and I can already see that they’re going to be stretching this out for a veeeery long time.
The only thing which could really make this sort of plotline engaging is if I actually cared about the characters… which I don’t. They’re very stock characters, the kind we’ve either seen plenty of times before, or who aren’t really distinctive enough yet to be worthy of attention. It probably doesn’t help that it’s not a particularly interesting ensemble of actors – the right kind of casting can get you a long way and breathe life into what were previously two-dimensional caricatures, and here we’ve got a selection of not-bad actors doing work that safely qualifies as not-bad. It really doesn’t help that Joseph Fiennes is the lead – he’s an actor who I always found slightly peculiar even back in the Nineties when he was verging on breaking into full-on star status in the wake of Shakespeare in Love (something which probably wasn’t helped by appearing in Killing Me Softly, one of the most unintentionally hilarious (and dreadful) films I’ve ever seen), and here he just seems to be wearing a permanent stare that shrieks “Look at me! I’m intense! See me smoulder!”
The thing I find most clod-hopping and uninspiring about Flash Forward is the way it’s simply boiling down to suddenly handing the population of Earth a series of plot coupons (to be redeemed in six months), and most of them aren’t even particularly interesting plot coupons. Biggest and most contrived of the lot is Joseph Fiennes’ Big Wall of Plot, which he seems to be recalling to a photographic level considering this was something he glimpsed for about a minute in something he initially thought was a dream (It’s just as bad as the moment in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles where a dying resistance member helpfully wrote an entire seasons-worth of plot details on a wall in blood just before they croaked), and there’s barely a moment where I can’t feel the hands of the writers desperately manouevring everything into place. Combine this with some half-hearted performances (especially the female NSA head), bland dialogue and some seriously ill-advised attempts at humour (What exactly were they thinking with Courtney B. Vance’s ‘hilarious’ bathroom recusitation sequence?), and you’ve got a show that is resolutely failing to seduce me into wanting to find out more.
It’s not so much that it’s bad – the first two episodes have, to be honest, been much more focussed and more entertaining than the first two episodes of Dollhouse, for example – just that it’s happy to be mediocre. I haven’t sensed yet that anyone on Flash Forward is really giving it their all, on a creative or a technical level (past the excellent montage sequence that led up to the Flash Forward itself). While the Lost comparisons are coming thick and fast (not helped by the opening of the pilot episodes basically being identical), it’s actually S1 of Heroes that Flash Forward feels much closer to – and so far, it’s lacking the lurid nuttiness and the completely barking cliffhangers that eventually won me over (at least for most of S1). It’s like they’ve taken Lost, Heroes and 24, mashed them together – and then filed off all the weird, kooky or interesting edges, leaving a perfectly functional yet strangely uninspiring TV series. Even Fringe, which is also massively derivative, has at least managed to slightly win me over thanks to its characterisation and its habit of going in some truly loopy directions – I’m not yet certain that Flash Forward really has enough imagination to go the kooky route, and I kind of wish some of the flash forwards had been a little more abstract, and a little less “Here is your plot coupon for this episode, Mr Fiennes.”
It’s also following the Heroes pattern in that a lot of the people who are enjoying Flash Forward seem to be those who either didn’t like or got turned off by Lost, and I’m sure it won’t be long before the “Oh, it’s like Lost but done RIGHT!” comparisons start. And yet, leaving aside Lost’s admitted flaws, dead ends and meanderings over the years, the 2-part pilot episode of Lost is still a seriously impressive piece of television. It’s technically brilliant, and from a writing perspective it also does a fantastic job of setting up the characters, making them interesting and believable people, and also making sure that they’re not just standard archetypes that we’ve seen plenty of times before. The mystery trappings of the Island and the Monster were, of course, the attention-grabbing stuff, but just the characterisation and the cast would have been good enough to make me want to watch more. Lost pulled a whole lot of things that I hadn’t seen before just in its opening episode (and its greatest moments since then have equalled or surpassed those rug-pulling moments) – Flash Forward hasn’t really done anything yet that I haven’t seen before. Of course, we’re only two episodes in, but I’m really not inspired to stick with this for the long haul (if only because those constantly repeated flash-glimpses of the flash forwards (and previous significant scenes) are going to get very irritating) – I’ll be happy to be proved wrong, and I’m going to give it another couple of episodes to convince me, but I doubt I’ll be going beyond that, simply because I’ve got better things to do than sitting around waiting for a mediocre show to get interesting…