Tuned In

TV Tonight: Can FlashForward Get Lost?

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When I pot post my Test Pilot first impressions of new shows over the summer, I make the point of stressing that they’re not reviews, because the pilots can be reworked before they’ve aired. That’s not a lie, but in the case of ABC’s FlashForward, the for-air pilot hasn’t changed from what I saw in June enough to change my initial mixed-to-disappointed impressions. So go ahead and read those.

I’m setting a Season Pass for FlashForward anyway. The show is based on an excellent concept (see my earlier post for the rundown on it, if you haven’t heard it yet), and I want it to be good. But being a TV critic is about setting aside what you want to believe and judging what you’ve actually seen. And what I’m afraid I see in FlashForward is, once again, a network trying to make “the next Lost” without seeming to get what made the last Lost great.

Too often, would-be Lost successors (Day Break, Invasion, even Heroes to an extent) make the mistake of thinking that Lost is all about the blow-your-mind mystery and the cool concept. It’s not. Before anything, Lost was about its characters and its writing.

Today we automatically associate Lost with Byzantine puzzles and awesome twists: Dharma, the Others, “You’re gonna die, Charlie,” and, of course, the flash-forward. It’s easy to forget that the pilot for Lost had almost none of that. There was a plane crash, people struggling to survive, and some freaky crap: a polar bear, a radio transmission, and something that killed the pilot. And there were the people—well-imagined, distinctive characters whom we connected to, so the really freaky stuff could come later.

FlashForward seems like a case of putting plot first. Joseph Fiennes, as the central FBI investigator, is a stiff, and this could be a real problem. But there are good actors here—John Cho, Sonya Walger—they just haven’t yet been given people to play. After having seen the pilot a few times, it’s a real effort for me to remember a single character’s name, or any distinguishing traits about them (as opposed to things that happen to them).

Some people, I think, believe that genre fiction (in this case sci fi) should be graded on a curve. I couldn’t agree less. The same principles apply: psychological depth, trueness to characters, originality and above all, voice. Lost, from its first minutes, had a voice. It’s characters had voices: you know, by the end of the first two hours, what Charlie, Hurley, Sawyer and Locke distinctively sounded like. (This owed to performers like Terry O’Quinn as much as to the script.) FlashForward, simply put, has no voice so far, and if it doesn’t find one, I’m not sure how long I can stick with it no matter how cool the plot is.

I will stick with it for now, though, because the premise is a doozy and I’m still intrigued. And I’m hoping the producers can retrofit a personality onto the show as it moves forward and adds to the cast. (Lost’s Dominic Monaghan, for instance, joins the show after tonight’s pilot.) Unlike FlashForward’s cast, I can’t see six months into the show’s future, so I’ll try to stay optimistic.