“Funny how one little decision can ruin your life… but also save it.”
So intones Michaela Stone (Melissa Roxburgh) as she makes the fateful decision to split up with most of her traveling party at the start of NBC’s “Manifest.” She, her brother (Josh Dallas) and his son (Jack Messina) end up aboard a flight that experiences a bit of severe turbulence before landing in New York — five years after its scheduled arrival. All the passengers on Montego Air Flight 828 had been presumed dead, leaving the rest of the family to evolve without them. And they seem to have returned with special powers, a sort of second sight enabling them to prevent and solve crimes.
All of which adds up to a “Lost” look-alike that, while it lacks the vision evident in ABC’s classic from its earliest moments, is better than it could be. There’s plenty of grade-A corn here, as when Michaela pieces together that the flight number is shared by a Bible verse needlepointed on her pillow (it’s Romans 8:28, “All things work together for good”), or when she returns to work… as a cop and is able to put her newfound gifts to use. “Manifest” crams a lot of show into its pilot, touching on religion without, exactly, being motivated by a believer’s fervor and building in a crime story that lacks much tension. (We already know by the time Michaela cracks the case that the voice speaking in her head has all the answers.)
And yet the ambition on display is admirable. “Manifest” is brazenly emotional in the “This Is Us” mold, unafraid to nod at the real toll of missing five years of life — parents and partners lost, grief for time’s passage felt in a wave — even as it lays the groundwork for a somewhat cracked procedural. And it builds real tension into the pre-landing sequence as the pilots fail to recognize the twist of fate the show’s marketing has already revealed. It passes at least one test, making us care about its story even as we might otherwise be waiting for it to pick up steam.
Had it premiered during “Lost’s” run, “Manifest” would have seemed like more of the same, yet another show constructing a fictional supernatural crisis to afflict a band of good-looking unfortunates. But against a somewhat moribund fall network slate, it feels like the best kind of throwback: A show made with craft and attention to detail, even as its details are daffily indulgent. A true puzzle-box show of the sort that cable and streaming — with series like “Westworld” and the forthcoming “Maniac” — have lately made work so well ought to have a home on broadcast. The pilot of “Manifest” doesn’t pretend to have answers; it only poses questions. But its inquisitiveness and willingness to be bold and fairly uncynical given all the things it’s trying to be is more than welcome.
Drama (one watched for review): NBC, Mon. Sept. 24, 10 p.m. E.T.
Executive Producers: Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke, Jeff Rake, and Jackie Levine
Cast: Melissa Roxburgh, Josh Dallas, Athena Karkanis, J.R. Ramirez, Luna Blaise, Jack Messina, and Parveen Kaur