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Manifest - Pilot - Review - "How Do We Know If We're The Called?"

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"In 2013, Flight 828 disappeared. Today, it came home." That's the tagline for this new drama that starts off as one thing and quickly becomes another. Or does it?

The episode opens on a strained family heading back from vacation, sitting in the airport. We meet Ben and Grace Stone, their twins Cal and Oliver, Ben's sister Michaela, and Ben and Michaela's parents. There are hints about tension among the family. Ben is zoned in on his work, Michaela's mom is urging her to move past some tragic event and accept a marriage proposal, and Cal has leukemia. This information is doled out to us by voiceover from Michaela. This is a mixed blessing. On one hand, her narration basically tells us that everything will "work together for good", to quote her mother's favorite Bible verse which just happens to be Romans 8:28. This establishes that Manifest is a human interest drama more than a conspiracy thriller. It also robs the show of virtually all suspense. We aren't here to find out how it's all connected. We're here to be shown how they are all connected.

They being everyone on Flight 828, which Ben, his sister, and Cal take after their other flight was overbooked. The plane encounters a smidgen of unpleasant turbulence, but nothing else out of the ordinary happens. They land and learn they have been missing for five years. They are never catching up with their Netflix watchlist and will be out of the loop on so many pop culture references. Here is where the episode starts to pick up.

The passengers, Stone family members included, are greeted by Government Agents in Dark Suits™ who reveal their presumed dead status. Some are indignant. Some break down in tears. One man wisely announces he will be suing the airline. (It is one thing for them to lose your luggage, but when they lose you....take them for every penny!)
The scene transitions to Grace running to reunite with Ben and Cal the next morning. Olive is five years older than her twin, and he hides from her in bewilderment. Michaela and Ben's father lets them know that their mother died of cancer. It is genuinely heartbreaking, as they all break down into tears.

There are a number of wonderful scenes that allow the cast to flex their acting chops. In particular, Athena Karkanis who plays Grace has some very emotional interactions. One that she shares with Ben (Josh Dallas) is particularly moving. Grace asks his forgiveness, because not a day has gone by that she hasn't resented him for taking that separate flight. She believed he had robbed her of the few months Cal had left to live. Their daughter Olive was afraid to leave the house and had to enter therapy. Now, they all have a second chance. Grace was clearly dating someone else, but she seems committed to reconnecting with Ben. And when she started to apologize earlier, it seemed that is what Ben thought she was going to apologize for. She ends up postponing that revelation.

Cal might even survive now, thanks to the research of a woman also on Flight 828, as her colleagues were able to get her data off the cloud and continue her research. This woman Saanvi has to go to bat to get Cal the treatment, as the bigwigs are worried that letting him in could mess up their success rate. (This made me roll my eyes, because clearly they could just say 'The treatment didn't work on this one kid who mysteriously disappeared for five years but didn't age that whole time, which probably affected the outcome' and protect their statistics.)

Melissa Roxburgh turns in a strong performance as Michaela. Prior to the plane flight, Michaela was a detective on desk duty, carrying the burden of a fatal car accident she blames herself for. She not only finds out she lost her mother, but her apartment and everything she owned was sold. And her boyfriend moved on after a couple years and married her best friend. At least, she's offered her old job back, starting with finishing that desk duty. Roxburgh is able to perfectly capture how sickening and confusing this is for Michaela. And then there's the voices. Yes, this episode unveils a slightly supernatural element, in that Michaela (and Ben) hear their own voices speaking to them and guiding them into taking certain actions. These actions end up saving the lives of multiple children.

But yes there are voices! It would seem all the passengers and crew of Flight 828 can hear them, as they are all drawn together at the end. They stand outside the airport looking at their plane, which then explodes. They are all super relaxed and not really concerned. Hallmark Channel credits music plays over the fiery scene. Honestly, the plane blowing up just felt silly. Michaela's voiceover has already told us that they will be getting to know the other people and that what happened to them on Flight 828 might have ruined their lives but will also save them. There's absolutely nothing else up to this point that hints their disappearance was sinister. This scene isn't made to feel sinister either. So I guess it's just a plane blowing up for the sake of.....drawing a blank here.

It seems that there is already a great show to be mined from how people would handle rebuilding their lives and reentering the world after being absent five years. The "how did this happen" just doesn't matter as much as "how will they deal with it" does. The "voices" element reminds me a bit of another new fall show: God Friended Me. Only in this case it will be voices instead of Facebook chats that guide the characters each week to souls that need saving, including perhaps their own. There are no startling gasp-inducing cliffhangers or ominous musical cues, just a light dusting of mystery.

Show creator Jeff Rake posted to Twitter that "We will get to know all these people." This pilot looks at relationships, considers how perspective can be altered by a life-changing event, and doesn't oversell its sadder beats. It could be a very thoughtful character drama, which seems to be its intention. It could also get lost in its own mystery. For now, at least, there are characters with stories we can get invested in. That's a good a starting point as any.

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