FlashForward was a genius idea for a show. Too bad it's flailing.

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Oct. 21 2009 6:04 PM

The Plot Thins

FlashForward was a genius idea for a show. Too bad it's flailing.

FlashForward. Click image to expand.
FlashForward

FlashForward (ABC, Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET) heads into its fifth week on air continuing not to deliver on the promise of its intriguing pilot. Loosely based on a science-fiction novel by Robert J. Sawyer, the series began with apocalyptic intimations, cosmological overtones, and some pretty decent explosions, efficiently positing a world in which, on Oct. 6, 2009, a mysterious something abruptly shut off everyone's consciousness for two minutes and change. The immediate consequences of this anomaly are the stuff of a global emergency: crashed planes, drowned swimmers, and (I shudder to presume) overcooked Kobe beef.

One man staggered out of the wreckage with the potential to unravel this mystery and save humanity. He is a Los Angeles FBI agent named Mark Benford, the first guy in his office to recognize that the vivid dreams many earthlings experienced during that impromptu catnap were, in fact, precognitive visions. Billions witnessed a synchronous two minutes and change of April 29, 2010. One of Mark's female colleagues, for instance, neither pregnant nor trying to become pregnant on Oct. 6, was puzzled to find her future self under an ultrasound wand and smiling at a screen image of a happy fetus. His boss was ashamed to report that he was sitting on the john reading the sports page. His partner simply blacked out, seeing no future at all, and he quickly gets antsy that this indicates he'll be dead when April 29 rolls around. For his part, Mark had a vision of a crucial plot device.

In his glimpse of the future, Mark was working late at his office—scowling, flinging notebooks around in manly frustration, and mostly trembling with purpose while running his dark eyes over a bulletin board collaged with clues to this extraordinary case. The sneak peeks of April 29 also depict Mark swigging liquor from a flask, a significant bit of thirst-quenching given that he's a recovering alcoholic. Meanwhile, his wife, a physician, shields him from the knowledge that her "flash forward" indicates her sexual involvement with the father of one of her patients. (Further, as the audience knows and Dr. Benford doesn't—despite the dude's standard-issue British-villain accent—the future lover is a bad guy.) Given these troubles, it was gratuitously cruel of FlashForward to saddle Mark with the further misfortune of being played by Joseph Fiennes.

Called upon to think about Joseph Fiennes, some people may reflect on his brother Ralph, while others might recall Joseph's performance in the title role in Shakespeare in Love. Most people do not think of Joseph Fiennes as an action star, a circumstance that likely owes to the obvious fact that he isn't one. The man is too light and slight to accomplish the heavy-duty Jack Bauer-type glowering the part asks of him in any convincing fashion. The most natural response to seeing Mark sprint across the screen in slow motion is to feel embarrassment on behalf of the actor.

This dynamic is especially problematic given that, in the matter of the willing suspension of disbelief, FlashForward needs all the help it can get. Fantasy plots require fantastic details, but the show, rolling steadily downhill from a compelling premise, is utterly casual about the particulars of its speculative time-tripping and post-catastrophe atmospherics. Where it should be riddling, it is merely opaque. Where it should be eerie, it is contentedly bland. In the gentle acoustic-guitar moments, I hear the sounds of artistic compromise. Instead of slipping tantalizing clues into the dialogue, FlashForward gives us in-jokes about the stars' resumes. Mark's wife calls him the "Shakespeare" of dorky dad humor at one point. Co-star John Cho, a veteran of the Harold and Kumar stoner flicks, trips over a bong in one episode.

For a reflection on justice and the desperate measures that desperate times call for, we get this line from Cho's character's fiancee, a defense attorney: "Speaking of work, can I ask you something work related? Are you guys Gitmo-ing a suspect downtown? Professionally, if the Bureau's violating someone's due process, that's uncool." You bleeding hearts out there will be relieved to know that if they are torturing the suspect—a "hot blonde terrorist" also known as "Bin Laden in Prada"—then at least they're letting her reapply her eyeshadow after her waterboarding sessions. Mark's own bulletin board is coming along nicely—the crime-scene photo of the charred baby-doll is a perfect faux-grotesque touch—but his investigation is going nowhere.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.