FlashForward: “White to Play”

Adios, Robert Sawyer


“White to Play”
ABC, Thursday,  8 PM

Written by David S. Goyer & Marc Guggenheim

Directed by David S. Goyer

“He who foresees calamities suffers them twice over.” — D. Gibbons

Well, that didn’t take long. In my review of the pilot, I expressed my extreme skepticism that the FBI, of all agencies, would be put in charge of the investigation of a scientific phenomenon. Doing so turns this science fiction story into a police procedural, which is like turning Cinderella back into a pot-scrubber. This episode took steps to correct that mistake, by introducing a highly skeptical Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security with the unlikely name of Anastasia Markham (Lynn Whitfield, Without a Trace) whose sole function so far is to question every single move made by the Los Angeles FBI team. Maybe by the fifth or sixth episode, someone will have thought to bring in, oh, a scientist or five. In any case, it is clear that we have now waved an insouciant goodbye to the basic plot of the founding novel for this series, Robert Sawyer’s Flashforward. From here on in, we’re in make-it-up-as-we-go-along land.

Having therefore locked my preconceptions in a closet, I find that this second episode is not too shabby. Taken on its own merits, the setup allows an adequate foundation for drama: a troubled family, rivalry within the investigative team, mysterious clues that add up to less than they seem. In short, Lost crossed with any given cop show–not a bad combination in and of itself. In this episode, Mark and his increasingly skeptical partner, Demetri, are trying to track down ‘Suspect Zero’, the mystery person glimpsed on a videotape moving around during the flashforward. Agent Janis (Christine Woods, In Plain Sight) analyzes the tape and deduces that the subject is a man standing five feet eight; she guesstimates his weight and build. Frankly, I didn’t buy that “analysis” for one minute–in the absence of more sophisticated image analysis, my eyes tell me that figure was a woman in a hoodie. The height is easy to mask–many women wear boots with heels, particularly to a stadium in Detroit on a frosty April evening. Meanwhile, an all-out manhunt is underway for someone named “D. Gibbons”, whose name was on a card on the case wall in Mark’s flashforward. A woman named Didi Gibbons, who owns a local cupcake store, arrives in answer to their prayers, bringing sample cupcakes. Her flashforward involved her shouting on the phone to someone, telling her caller to contact Agent Demetri Noh of the FBI. Mark chooses a quiet moment to grill his boss about his flashforward, and we get a minute and a half of ABC’s patented bathroom humor that was, yes, funny, but not really necessary.

The pace picks up considerably when someone uses Didi Gibbons’ credit card to buy a bus ticket in Pigeon, Utah, another name from her flashforward. Exeunt omnes via helicopter, to arrive in the tiny town of Pigeon where they meet Sheriff Keegan, a no-nonsense woman who doesn’t think much of this flashforward stuff since, as she tells Demetri, she saw nothing. Heartened at finding another person who didn’t participate in the worldwide event, Demetri comes dangerously close to thawing. The sheriff, the FBI, and probably the Minutemen stake out the town of Pigeon, including the bus depot. Nobody arrives, nobody leaves, and the stakeout is called off–until Mark recognizes a name from his flashforward. I love the idea of a procedural where clues are remembered, not discovered. Entering a “deserted” warehouse (do none of these people watch horror movies?), they encounter a weird alarm system consisting of dolls suspended on wires, which triggers an alarm. The agents burst into the upstairs floor, only to discover a mysterious man, D. Gibbons, standing in the middle of a room filled with servers, routers, computers–and bombs. He delivers his one pithy line and then detonates the room. Sheriff Keegan is killed, confirming Demetri’s worst fears, and the forensics team takes a photo of a doll head in the rubble that exactly matches one on Mark’s wall. Creepy! Back in LA, Demetri continues to brood about his lack of a vision. Janis, still worried about the identity of her child’s father, commiserates with him (we know where this is going, don’t we?), and encourages him to enter his non-story on the website. Within hours, he gets a phone call from a woman confirming his name on a list of dead agents: he will be murdered on March 15, 2010. Beware the Ides of March, indeed.

At home, the Benson family drama continues to play out its well-worn script. Olivia has now met the man of her dreams, er, vision: Lloyd Simcoe (Jack Davenport, Swingtown), whose son’s life she saved after the flashforward. Apparently he does not remember her, but she recognizes him, and Mark is deeply troubled by suspicions of her future infidelity. So much so, that he continues not to tell her that in his future, he is drinking again. He tells her he is torn between his job, which is to try to make his vision come to pass, and his private life, where he desperately does not want her vision to come to pass. Unfortunately, Mark and Olivia are so wrapped up in their private hell, they don’t seem to notice that their daughter Charlie is having problems coping with the event. Their reactions are based on how much she can contribute to their understanding of their visions–neither Mark nor Olivia seems much interested in what Charlie herself saw. Olivia uses her to confirm Lloyd Simcoe’s identity as the man in her vision: Charlie doesn’t recognize Lloyd but freaks out when she sees Dylan (Ryan Wynott, Cold Case) in the hospital bed. Mark is so disturbed at this threat to his marriage that he burns the friendship bracelet his daughter gave him, because it’s a link to the future he doesn’t want. What he fails to see is that it is a link to the present-day daughter who needs him very much. Mark is in danger of making one of the oldest errors in the book: sacrificing the present to the future.

I look forward to seeing more instances of random strangers appearing (with or without cupcakes) to tell one character or another where their lives intersect on April 29, 2010. (And of course it is no coincidence that that date is a Thursday night, probably this season’s last telecast. I wonder what would happen if ABC moved this show to another night?). This possibility of random strangers cross-referencing their futures promises to weave a rich tapestry out of the basic premise of the show. Mark and Olivia’s tension between the future one wants and another does not is echoed already in Demetri’s lack of vision, Janis’ disturbing vision, and Wedecki’s ambivalent one (remember, he was ‘in a meeting’). When one thinks about it, it’s an echo of everyday life, only without the foreknowledge. The foreknowledge may not actually change the future, if one person’s deliberate effort to change the events of April 29 are checkmated (hence the title?) by someone else’s efforts. I look forward to seeing how this all plays out.

Other interesting moments included the children playing Blackout, the cell phone calls to Suspect Zero, and of course Wedecki’s very funny recounting of his blackout experience in the men’s room, and its aftermath. I liked the creepy dolls and I like Demetri’s existential (literally!) dilemma. The mix between science fiction and straight-up soap opera is still very uncertain, however. There is plenty of melodrama to go around, but the characters are still pretty generic. Shoehorning in some standard angsty-family stress, police operations, and explosions will not, ultimately, rescue this show from blandness. What it needs is a sense of wonder, and so far this has been imparted only through phone calls in which one character tells another, “I saw you in my vision.” This is already old.

Flashforward pulled in 10.78 million for this episode, which is an excellent retention from its 12.4 million-viewer debut. That’s about 87% of the pilot audience, and bodes well for the series’ longevity. The critical determinant will be whether it becomes so self-referential that, like Lost and other puzzle shows, one cannot just jump in in Episode Six and understand what is going on. This is an all-or-nothing show which will cater to devoted followings but will probably not pick up very many as it ages. But I have no doubt that this show will last until April 29, 2010: I saw it in a vision.