How Manifest Succeeds Where Other Mystery-Box Sci-Fi Shows Have Failed

TV Features Manifest
How Manifest Succeeds Where Other Mystery-Box Sci-Fi Shows Have Failed

Editor’s Note: Some references to Manifest Season 4 spoilers are below.

Heading into the back half of its fourth and final season, Manifest has (ahem) manifested something plenty of high concept shows like it have failed to attain in the past: enough success to actually carry the story to a proper ending.

After proving a modest-enough hit at NBC for three seasons, the sci-fi-tinged mystery drama jumped to Netflix this season. In this super-sized final run of 20 episodes, it plans to wrap up the twisty story of a group of airplane passengers who vanished for five years then mysteriously returned—bringing with them visions (or “callings”) that lead them on various missions to help others and right wrongs from week to week.

It’s a simple enough premise when you write it on the back of a cocktail napkin, but across three-and-a-half seasons the mythology has gotten more expansive, with new players, factions, and reveals fleshing out the question of why they all vanished and why they all came back in the first place.

For ardent TV fans, Manifest is only the latest show in a long line of high concept network dramas aiming to capture the same type of buzzy, serialized magic that Lost bottled and turned into a cultural phenomenon all those years ago. We’ve had The Event, FlashForward, Terra Nova, Wayward Pines (which was actually fantastic in its first season), Touch, the V revival, Alcatraz, Revolution, and probably a dozen more I’m surely forgetting.

So what makes Manifest different from all those other big swings that were all axed after one season (or in a few rare cases, two seasons), all with more questions left hanging than answers? Namely, the fact that Manifest is still on TV, and will have a chance to wrap up its big ol’ mystery saga with a proper ending mapped out by creator and showrunner Jeff Rake.

Ironically enough, Manifest almost suffered the same fate as all those other shows that dared to ask some big and crazy questions (albeit after three seasons, but still). With ratings starting to slide, NBC pulled the plug on the show. But then a funny thing happened: those first three seasons dropped on Netflix, and Manifest became an overnight hit as millions of new fans were able to easily dig into the mystery of the death date and just WTF is up with Cal Stone a la an easy-to-digest binge format.

With the show burning up the Netflix charts, talks resumed between the studio Warner Bros. TV and NBC for a possible shortened final season to wrap up the story, and after crunching the streaming numbers, Netflix also made a bid to pick up the show, offering a full 20-episode run that proved the most appealing option for Rake to provide a set ending and plenty of runway to bring the show in for a proper landing.

It admittedly took some luck for Manifest to have the opportunity to make it to the finish line (the final 10 episodes are set to premiere next year), but there’s also a reason enough fans fell in love with it in the first place and were willing to follow it through some positively bonkers twists and reveals these past few years. Unlike many of those other high concept swings, Manifest kept its big mysteries firmly wrapped up in how it all impacted the Stone family and the other passengers around them. It gave viewers characters they cared about and could root for, then built the mystery around them.

The stakes surrounding Flight 828 have remained fairly low and nebulous when compared to the usual end-of-the-world antics from most of those other shows (at least up until this final run of episodes), and it’s been refreshing to have a story that doesn’t have to be all about saving the world—at least, not all the time and not from the jump. As Manifest is finally starting to pull back the curtain on its endgame and just how big the mystery is and how it could change (or destroy!) the world, it’s still the same characters we know and love at the center of it all.

Sure, the world might be ending, but we’re too busy bawling our eyes out over Zeke and Michaela to really let it sink in. Because we care. Cal might be the only person who can save the world, but we don’t just watch because of that. We care because we’ve watched this poor kid grow up (literally, we’re on Actor No. 2 now) and overcome so much despair and loss but still keep his heart on his sleeve through it all.

As for the mythology that drives the narrative, Manifest absolutely has plenty of that, too—and sure, it gets kinda silly sometimes. But unlike shows that try to take their canon too seriously and straight-faced, Manifest has threaded the needle of embracing the inherent absurdity in a way that feels earnest and true to its world. The mystery of the callings, and the Omega Sapphire, and the religious and mythological parallels can get a bit muddy at times; but we care enough about the characters trying to figure it out that it’s fun to be along for the ride to see it all come together.

There will be plenty of theories over the next few months as fans try to dissect how this story might finally come to an end and what it all means, but any good sci-fi show worth its salt generates some good fan theories. More importantly, it’s the extended Stone family that will keep us coming back, because the characters matter. Regardless of whether the world ends or not, we need to know what happens to Ben, and Jared, and Olive, and Saanvi. Bring on the endgame.

Also, Zekaela for life.

Trent Moore is a recovering print journalist, and freelance editor and writer with bylines at lots of places. He likes to find the sweet spot where pop culture crosses over with everything else. Follow him at @trentlmoore on Twitter.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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