An NBC sci-fi series, Manifest, premiered on Netflix last week, and it has already taken up residence among the streaming service’s most-watched movies and television shows, according to Netflix’s own Top 10 chart (it held at number two all weekend, according to my Netflix account). Netflix doesn’t license as much off-network content as it used to, but despite having its own streamer in Peacock, NBC clearly felt that Netflix could provide the show with a bigger audience while collecting tidy licensing fees, to boot. The series, which wrapped up its third season last week, is also on the bubble and has not yet been renewed. How well it does on Netflix could factor into NBC’s decision to give it a fourth season or put the series out of its misery.
Warning: Manifest is not a good show. I should know. I have watched every episode and recapped each one for another outlet.
Its poor quality, however, is not entirely apparent from the pilot, which was heavily hyped on NBC ahead of its fall debut in 2018. It’s a compelling premiere episode with a fascinating premise. It’s about the passengers of Flight 828, who left from Jamaica and arrived in New York City. However, when the 191 passengers land, they learn that five-and-a-half years had passed and that, in the interim, they were presumed dead by everyone else.
It seems like an obvious setup for a drama about passengers who must reintegrate into their lives after five years have passed and after many of their loved ones have moved on. However, there’s only an inkling of that in the beginning. Yes, when Ben Stone (Josh Dallas) returns, his wife Grace (Athena Karkanis) has a new boyfriend, and his daughter — who wasn’t on the flight — is now five years older than her twin brother, who was on the flight, but the family drama is dispatched with fairly early on (in fact, the wife’s boyfriend, played by Rescue Me‘s Daniel Sunjata, inexplicably disappears from the series after a handful of episodes).
It’s a broadcast network television series, so naturally, it also attempts early on to take shape as a police procedural. Ben’s sister, Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh) is an NYPD detective, and she — like the other passengers on the flight — have “callings” (or visions) that aid her in solving crimes, but that element of the series is eventually abandoned, as well.
It’s not until the second season that Manifest figures out that it really wants to be a supernatural conspiracy thriller, but even then, the writers mostly seem to be making it up as they go along. It takes the better part of two seasons for a bare-bones mythology to even begin to take shape.
SPOILERS BELOW (YOU WERE WARNED)
– The Stone family helps other passengers resolve their callings, which usually entails saving someone from danger. However, some of the more bizarre callings often appear to be hugely significant but are never referred to again. For instance, at one point, the Stone family creates a scene in their living room using a hockey net only to find themselves in a vision hundreds of years in the past on a ship out in the middle of the ocean looking up into the sky to see Flight 828 flying above them. The dramatic calling, however, is never explained or mentioned again.
– Other characters, outside of Flight 828, also disappear and reappear days, months, or years later, and “death dates” are established. Those who experience this time travel only live as long as they were gone. For instance, because the Flight 828 passengers disappeared for five-and-a-half years, their “death date” (or the day they are scheduled to die) is five-and-a-half years from the day their flight lands. The Stone family is trying to prevent these death dates, which requires resolving their callings. There is also something called “dark lightning,” although it’s unclear what its role in the series is; passengers are secretly experimented on (although, that arc is eventually abandoned without resolution and never spoken of again), and there are other nefarious characters who seek to exploit Flight 828 passengers for their own gain, although it is unclear what it is they have to gain.
– Meanwhile, season three (not yet available on Netflix) sloppily introduces religious undertones. We are vaguely led to believe that Flight 828 passengers have been “resurrected,” like Jesus, and given a second chance. Meanwhile, a piece of driftwood from Noah’s Ark surfaces and is given huge significance (it will allow scientists to “recreate miracles”) only to be tossed into a volcanic crack that opens up in upstate New York. A half a season is also devoted to three meth heads (who are literally referred to as “meth heads”) to establish that each of the individual passengers on Flight 828 have to be good people or redeem themselves in order for all of the passengers to avoid their “death date,” though how they can redeem themselves is only vaguely defined.
The series is desperate to be the type of show that Reddit users devote theories towards, but it must try and do so within the confines of a broadcast network TV, which means it must operate only on the surface level. It also belabors certain aspects of the mythology while completely abandoning other aspects. The writing is rudimentary, and the acting is stilted and wooden, and I don’t think there’s an intentionally light or funny moment in the entire three seasons of the series.
Mostly, however, it’s infuriating in the way that it continues to present half-baked questions that the show has little intention of ever answering. It would be a shame, then, to start watching Manifest on Netflix with the expectation of a satisfying ending. A proper resolution to the series is currently impossible because it still doesn’t seem to know what it’s even trying to resolve.