If I were to tell you that a television series in which John Cho (a.k.a. the Harold who went to White Castle) consistently steals scenes from Joseph Fiennes (of the Acting Fienneses) exists, you'd likely laugh at me. But it does. Every Thursday night brings us another bizarrely-paced episode of Flashforward. Loosely based on the Robert J. Sawyer novel (which I haven't read) of the same name, the show follows a team of FBI agents investigating the origin of a worldwide loss of consciousness. For two minutes and thirteen seconds, everyone on the planet lost consciousness and (as per the title) caught an exclusive showing of their lives six months in the future (29 April 2010).* The premise is interesting enough, and when the narrative focuses on the secular equivalent of arguments about predestination, the show works.
For example, because so many people seemed to have obscenely meaningful flashforwards, even those people who saw themselves walking into an unfamiliar parking garage imbue theirs with meaning. The parking lot, after all, may only be unfamiliar now because a character hasn't been fired from one firm and hired by another. The characters mostly know this, but watching them struggle against the inevitability of the mundane makes for compelling television; however, the motor of the show is the drunken memory of Fiennes's Agent Mark Benford, who saw himself in his office 1) struggling to make sense of the whiteboard on which he and his team are collating the evidence of what caused the blackout and 2) being hunted by a team of assassins. The first element of his flashforward presents clues worthy of a Robbe-Grillet novel, in that Agent Benford is a recovering alcoholic trying to make sense of a half-seen evidence board while being pounded by the guilt of drinking after seven years of sobriety. He knows himself to be an unreliable narrator—is burdened by the fact of it—and yet he struggles to recreate the whiteboard as he remembers it from his flashforward.
It's the second element of the flashforward that troubles me, not because I have qualms about David S. Goyer works featuring assassins (perish the thought), but because such action threatens to overwhelm the legitimately compelling high-conceptual quality of the show. This is not to say the two can't be combined: in one episode, for example, none of the FBI agents involved in a shootout bother to take cover because they know they're going to be alive six months later. But unless the writers veer into Longshot territory and have characters jump off buildings for the thrill of learning the strained chain of happenstance to which the universe must resort to keep them alive another six months, they run the risk of turning half of each episode into a tensionless exercise in faked foolhardiness. (The law of diminishing returns actually kicked in before that first action sequence ended.)
You might object that viewers have been so thoroughly conditioned by a lifetime of televisual convention that they'll find such scenes compelling even though they know they shouldn't. I'm not sure I'd disagree. Still, that the writers find it necessary to insert action sequences into a series driven by a complex premise smacks of pandering to an audience who will never watch the show. Such viewers are more interested in the caliber of the gun than the life of the person shooting it, and as such will never devote an hour a week to a show half-occupied by characters discussing whether their attempts to circumvent the inevitable are responsible for it coming to pass. The actions of the characters frequently remind of "The Opposite," the episode of Seinfeld in which George decides that since he's spent his entire life doing what he thought was right and ended up himself, his only chance at happiness would be to go against his instinct and always do the opposite. The wrinkle on Flashforward, obviously, is that they maybe ended up wherever they did on 29 April 2010 because they decided to do the opposite, so the only way to prevent their flashforward from happening would be to go with their instincts. That's the show's strength: a premise that compels its characters to constantly reevaluate their decision-making processes and reinterpret what they think they thought they knew.
As for the show's weaknesses, in addition to the bizarre directorial decisions and resultant pacing problems, Flashforward suffers from some unexpectedly poor performances. Joseph Fiennes pulls a reverse-Costner, clearly burdened by the labor of producing his spotty American accent; and Courtney B. Vance, formerly serviceable in the role of a legal-minded bureaucrat on Criminal Intent, clearly forgot how to act. Unlike Fiennes, Vance is beyond redemption. (I believe the purpose of the frequent allusions to Fiennes's previous roles—a recent episode tossed off lines about him being a Shakespeare of one thing and a Luther of another—is a deliberate attempt to remind him that he's talented.) Should the show succeed, it will be (as the most recent addition to the cast demonstrates) despite itself. In point of fact, the main purpose of this post is to memorialize its potential before it turns into irredeemable dreck, that way when it's canceled with high irony six month hence, I can justify why I stuck around for its inevitable decline.
*The show-runners either haven't decided whether these events are witnessed, as if by a third party, or experienced through the character's own eyes. Olivia Benford, the wife of Fiennes's character, sometimes remembers her flashforward from the perspective of the other person in it; but she also remembers it from her own perspective, as well as one in which she can see both herself and the other man. This could be sloppiness, but it could also be a fairly sophisticated statement about the non-iterative aspect of persistently recalled memories ... but I'm not a betting man.