New Season TV Preview by Tom Shales: ABC's Complicated 'FlashForward'

What happens when everyone on Earth blacks out, only to awake and be able to foresee the future? ABC's latest drama starring Joseph Fiennes and Courtney B. Vance answers that very question. Video by ABC
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009

About a thousand years ago, producers of an ABC comedy show called "Turn-On" thought it would be cute to run the credits not at the beginning or end of the program but all through it. Unfortunately for them, America turned off; the show made history by being canceled during its premiere.

That fate is unlikely to befall "FlashForward," a high-profile, far-out fantasy series that makes a splashy bow Thursday night on the same network. But one of its gimmicks is reminiscent of "Turn-On": Previews of future episodes seem to have been sprinkled throughout the hour instead of being saved for the end.

The sensational and provocative premise is that these little blips and bloops are fragmented scenes from Things to Come envisioned by everybody on the planet. About 10 minutes into the premiere, the world conks out, boom, and roughly 7 billion people -- from doctors performing surgery to cops chasing crooks -- suffer precisely two minutes of inexplicable and unanimous unconsciousness.

They're not precisely asleep, investigators say later, and yet they all have the equivalent of dreams, "memories of the future" -- and not so much a vague, stardusty future as a specific date: April 29, 2010 at 10 o'clock. What will happen then? Whom will it happen to? Naturally we must tune in next week and the week after that to find out.

And the week after that? Well -- you might not want to set your DVR timers just yet. One of the futuristic visions experienced by the characters could be an ABC executive canceling the series -- if not enough people want to know what will happen next as well as what happened during the blackout.

In recent seasons, high-toned variations on the old Saturday afternoon movie serials have materialized in network prime time, where once they were unlikely occurrences. Many viewers are reluctant to commit to these cliffhangers, it's been theorized, because they don't want to be left dangling should the show be canceled before basic questions are answered.

Increasingly desperate, however, and with occasional successes such as ABC's "Lost" to bolster them, networks have gone out on iffy limbs and scheduled more such shows. Immediately apparent from the premiere of "FlashForward": The questions may prove more satisfying than the answers, a bad sign.

Certainly there's some nice spooky imagery. Our apparent hero, an FBI man played by Joseph Fiennes, wanders through devastated Los Angeles streets (fires have broken out everywhere) and runs across, of all things, a kangaroo hip-hopping casually about. This and other incongruous moments recall Terry Gilliam's fascinating "12 Monkeys," a convoluted thriller about fighting a plague from the future before it strikes.

But other aspects are reminiscent of other shows, not so encouragingly -- among them last year's honorable failure "Pushing Daisies." The new series seems to share a perhaps fatal flaw of that now-canceled show, which is that the premise becomes so byzantine and the complications so arcane that eventually people just give up on trying to make sense of the darn thing. There is something to be said for straightforward meat-and-potatoes storytelling, especially on a mass medium.

The first goal should always be clarity.

Some of the eccentricities afflicting "FlashForward" are irritating: too many interior scenes shot in very low light, for one -- bad enough in movies but worse on television, which even in high-def has trouble transmitting darkness.

In addition to Fiennes, the cross-section of humanity includes John Cho of the "Harold and Kumar" movies as Fiennes's partner; Courtney B. Vance at his consistently excellent best as the chief of the FBI's L.A. office; Sonya Walger, of "Lost," as a crack surgeon and the wife of the Fiennes character, very annoyed that the entire surgical team flopped to the floor in the middle of an operation; Zachary Knighton as another doctor who has gone to a big long pier (the pier . . . of life!) to contemplate suicide; and nearly 6 billion, 999 million, 999 thousand, 9 hundred and 90 more.

All right, not everyone in the world will be represented. But the characters are obviously meant to be symbolic -- perhaps as symbolic as, or more symbolic than, the kangaroo that showed up in downtown L.A.

Obviously with the Earth tipping more precariously on its axis than ever (or so it seems -- perhaps to every generation), people may be more receptive to visions of biblical apocalypse than ever. Who doesn't get the heebie-jeebies from nature-gone-mad stories like the huge dust storm that struck Sydney, Australia, just this week and turned the sky an eerie red?

Or how about the Philadelphia kitty found wrapped in duct tape by some heartless loony? That's kind of apocalyptic too.

But then, so is my checking account.

"FlashForward," with lots of flash-cut editing (oddly offset with long, slow dialogue scenes) and some eye-pleasing special effects, seems a show very much of today and today's version of tomorrow and maybe even tomorrow's version of today. But if it were a little less ditzy and a little more clear-cut, it might stand a better chance of seeing tomorrow itself.

FlashForward (one hour) premieres Thursday at 8 on ABC.

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