Thursday, 22 October 2009

We don't know what "never" means anymore.

 A brief return of our occasional feature "Gee watches a Science Fiction television programme and give his opinion on it. People then realise why he has never been hired to do this professionally.".

There's a wonderful passage in William Goldman's Adventures in The Screen Trade where he offers a word of advice for budding script writers. Say, for example, one movie studio produces a film about crime fighting hedgehogs that becomes an unexpected smash hit, destroying box office records and wowing critics and audiences alike. As a novice screenwriter waiting for their big break, you watch it and about half way through realise that you can write an even better hedgehog crime fighting movie. So you spend the next three weeks hammering away at your keyboard non stop, not pausing to eat or sleep or appease grumpy loved ones. But in the end it's all worth it, as you've managed to produce a script so good that it positively fizzes on the page.

You've also just wasted the past three weeks.

You see no matter how good your script, it's highly unlikely that any major Hollywood studio would touch it. Because, truth be told, by the time you've sent your script to the power players in cinema not only have they each received 500,000 identical scripts that week, but they've also had their own hedgehog crime fighting movie in development for months and months before hand. It's like when the Da Vinci Code went nuclear and all of a sudden there were a million other pot boiler thrillers about hidden codes in ancient texts clogging up bookstore shelves. Those books weren't written overnight (Gee Note: Although considering the derivative nature of most of them you'd be forgiven for thinking they were). Instead book publishers probably had these novels on the back burner, unsure what to do with them until the Da Vinci Code came along and did gangbuster numbers. In the entertainment industry the key is always to anticipate trends before they happen. That or start a new one.

So it's quite surprising then that five whole seasons of the celebrated television show Lost have come and gone before FlashForward was finally aired.

Then again perhaps not. Lost is on it's last legs, the coming season already confirmed to be it's final one. And with it's demise goes one of the consistently top ratings draws in ABC's arsenal. So it's only natural that ABC's exec's should try and find a carbon copy replacement to fill the airwaves.

This is where FlashForward comes in. It's premise is a simple one. An unknown event causes every man, woman, and child on Earth to black out for two minutes and 17 seconds. During this blackout they all see a vision of their own future six months down the line. Of course this being television everyone’s future is absurdly eventful. Like fighting swat teams with your bare hands, or drinking tequila slammers with an emu. Then everyone wakes up, dust themselves off and goes about the business of trying to work out what the hell just happened.

So far, so Lost. But you’d be a fool for thinking that FlashForward is some kind of identikit remake of Jack Sheppard and chums adventures on the island. You see Flashforward differs in one key aspect.

It’s not as good.

It tries it’s damnedest you understand. There’s unexpected creatures, like a Kangaroo hoping through Los Angeles for no reason. There’s an international cast of mixed ethnicity, including the stunningly beautiful Gabrielle Union, an Asian-American named Demetri (Gee Note: Why a dude with two Korean parents would have a Russian name is never explained. But then names aren’t everything. So says I, Gareth Danger Excitement Ninjaskills HOT Rhys Davies), and a pair of plummy Englishmen in the criminally underrated Jack Davenport and the criminally dull Joseph Fiennes. There’s even the occasional familiar face from Lost in there, with Sonya Walger and Dominic Monaghan amongst the series regulars. And of course, the plot is driven by a set of questions that lead to some more questions that, in turn, lead to yet more questions.

But the difference is that in all those areas where Lost succeeds FlashForward, er, doesn’t. Where the Polar Bears served a genuine purpose in posing a threat to the islanders, the Kangaroo just hops in to view and quickly hops back out of it. There’s no sense that it’s a mystery begging to be explained, just a whacky visual effect used to manipulate audience curiosity. Maybe it means something. Maybe it doesn’t. The fact is that currently in the series it’s a throwaway moment with absolutely no relevance to anything happening around it. It’s as if the show runners got together in a room and said:

“Hey guys. We need something to separate us from all those other metaphysical time travel dramas on television at the moment. Any ideas?” 

“Hmmm. Hey I got it. How about, now stick with me on this, but how about we get Joe to walk past a kangaroo?” 

“Why would there be a kangaroo in Los Angeles?”

“It doesn’t matter. We won’t mention it again and if someone asks we’ll just say it escaped from a zoo or something.”

“Hmmm. Kangaroo you say? I like it! It’s crazy! It’s unexpected! And it’s sooooo fits Los… um… I mean FlashForward. Good work guys. Let’s take the rest of the day off.”

The international cast is a mixed bag as well. Joseph Fiennes is by no means horrendous but doesn’t smoulder the way a leading man should. He just doesn’t have a smile or a light behind his eyes that could break hearts and weaken knees. And while I’m sure he will excel when the time comes to be full of anguish and internal torture, I’m not convinced he has enough to keep us interested in the meantime. Sonya Walger is also insanely unremarkable, to the point where you forget how charming and appealing she was in Lost. On the other hand, Davenport manages to carry the weight of the world’s problems around with him with such subtlety that it becomes quite touching. And  John Cho - playing everyone’s favourite Russian Korean FBI agent - is by far and away the stand out performer, managing to blend both rage and vulnerability seamlessly as he contemplates his future.

However the "unanswered question" plot structure also proves to be problematic. Even Lost struggles with it occasionally, walking a fine line between intriguing and frustrating all too often (Gee Note: Who attacked Sayid? Well that was John Locke. Why did he do it? Because Locke believes they were brought to the island for a purpose. Why does he think that? A great big smoke monster went up to him in the jungle and didn't kill him. Where the hell did the great big smoke monster come from? It lives in a well under Ben Linus' house? Why does it live… oh forget it). However in FlashForward's ham fisted attempts to follow suit they ratchet that frustration up another notch.

For example, at one point Joseph Fiennes discovers that the name "D. Gibbons" is apparently hugely important to all this time travel stuff. Then in one of those "Dun dun duuuuuuunnnnnn" episode endings he asks his suitably creep daughter what she saw in her future vision thing. The daughter answers with a cryptic "D. Gibbons is a BAD man.". Roll end credits while the audience goes "Oooh I wonder what she means!"

So in the next episode the first five minutes is devoted to a very serious Joseph Fiennes prising the information out of his daughter as to what EXACTLY she saw during her blackout right? Well, er, no actually. In fact it isn't mentioned again at all, as we're supposed to believe the conversation ended right there and Fiennes went off to Germany to talk to a Nazi war criminal about dead crows (Gee Note: Don't ask). Now I don't know about you, but if my child came home one day acting all weird the very first thing I would is sit them down, give them a cuddle, and make sure I understood precisely what was bothering them. Either that or lock them in the attic with a bucket of fish heads. Regardless that son of a gun is going to spill, especially if the fate of the world depends on it.

And here in lies the problem. FlashForward is so obsessed with being something else that it largely ignores the things that work in it’s favour. It's probably assembled one of the finest casts in television history, and so the writers should be climbing over themselves to give these folks something to sink their teeth in to. Instead we get cardboard cut-outs of characters going through the motions, killing time until the next feeble plot twist comes along. In the very first episode we learn that Fiennes is a recovering alcoholic. Great, except it has absolutely no impact on his day to day life apart from having to attend the occasional AA meeting. We never see him struggle with the addiction, instead he spends his time charging around the globe searching for clues. In that case why bother making him an alcoholic in the first place? It would be like everyone in Top Gun talking about how great a pilot Tom Cruise is, only to never show him flying a plane.

The aftermath of the blackout was shot beautifully, displaying the visceral carnage of buses ploughing through walls and planes dropping out of the sky with aplomb. But instead of lingering on the chaos by - say - following a brave fire fighter dramatically rescuing some helpless folk, we’re whisked away from it all far too quickly. We follow Joseph Fiennes as he heroically runs away from the destruction, stumbles across a kangaroo and thinks nothing of it, before arriving back at his FBI office to stare at a white board. “But… but” you cry, “there was all sorts of mad as a badger shit going on there. Why are we following this tedious mong when we could be watching explosions and fire and stuff?”. Why indeed.

Still we’d better get used to it, as this time next year there won’t be anymore Lost and FlashForward might be the only game in town. And, on the evidence so far, if that’s the case I hope we all blackout.

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