Television review: Manifest

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, October 19th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: A review of the TV drama Manifest. Here’s Megan Basham.

MEGAN BASHAM, TELEVISION CRITIC: Every few years it seems like one of the big four broadcast networks debuts a new show designed to replicate the success of ABC’s massive early-2000s hit, Lost. There was Revolution, Flash Forward, The Nine, and The Event.

Though some of these performed well out of the gate, none managed to sustain more than middling ratings, and few lasted more than a season or two. If the early numbers hold, NBC’s latest contender, new fall drama Manifest, could at last be the one that lives up to the show that spawned them all.

Like Lost, the mystery begins on airplane. Only instead of crashing, Flight 828 from Jamaica lands five-and-a-half-years after taking off, though to everyone on board, no more than a few hours have passed.

AUDIO: You’ve all been missing and presumed dead for 5 and a half years.

It’s an intriguing set-up that mimics Lost in another way: an ensemble immediately intertwines the lives of a seemingly random group of strangers.

AUDIO: We interviewed every one of them. Nothing…I think we’ve taken impossible off the table.

But there’s one element that makes it most like J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof’s influential series—and may be what gives it the best chance of gaining traction. Like Lost, Manifest heavily references the Bible.

AUDIO: He is risen. He is not here.

I always joke that whenever screenwriters want a guaranteed sense of ominous import, they start cramming bits of Scripture into the dialogue. Usually in ways that make it clear they don’t understand the meaning of what they’re quoting.

The Christian allusions in Manifest work better than they do in many other shows, however, because Romans 8:28 doesn’t just keep appearing as a cryptic Da Vinci Code-like clue. It actually provides something of a theme for the first few episodes.

AUDIO: You know my favorite verse. All things work together for good. You know I don’t believe that anymore, mom. How can I?

As the driver in a car accident that killed a friend, cop Michaela Stone suffers from survivor’s guilt that keeps her from moving on with life. Her brother Ben has a son dying from Leukemia. Neither feels like anything in their lives is working out for their good or anyone else’s.

This gets at the crux of a struggle Christians in particular can relate to. It’s easy to believe all things work together for your good when your career is thriving, your kids are healthy, and your marriage is sailing along like a life-long love affair.  It’s a lot harder to swallow in the midst of suffering.

Of course, the show doesn’t make it clear that Michaela, Ben, or any of the major characters are believers. So the verse wouldn’t necessary apply to them. But the storyline does take the concept of a God who directs the paths of our lives seriously. And watching the characters wrestle with issues of faith vs. science, the observable world vs. the invisible one, makes for more engaging entertainment than Christians usually find on TV. Especially because, for the first three episodes at least, the few relatively mild love scenes take place between Ben and his wife.

The formula of a supernatural mystery combined with Biblical themes is working well for NBC. Manifest is the highest rated new show so far this season.

On a broader level, part of its success could be because it speaks to something deep inside all of us as human beings, whether we profess faith or not. And that’s a desire to believe that some higher intelligence means not only for us to exist, but for there to be a purpose in the seemingly random, wandering paths our lives take.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.


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