The pilot for NBC’s new drama “Manifest,” which premiered on Sept. 24, starts off strong but doesn’t retain its thrill throughout. The show stars Parveen Kaur as Saanvi, a doctor and medical researcher who is a passenger on Montego Air 828. The flight takes of from Jamaica in 2013 but lands in New York City (after some turbulence) in 2018.
Because it’s been so long since the flight’s disappearance, the passengers have been missing and presumed dead for over five years. For those on the ill-fated flight however, it feels like only three hours have passed since take-off. Along with Saanvi, the focus of this first episode is on Ben and Michaela Stone (Josh Dallas, Melissa Roxburgh), siblings who were also on flight 828 along with Ben’s young son Cal, who suffers from leukemia.
High-concept dramas like this one usually start off strong with a beckoning mystery but often are unable to keep up with the momentum. The problem with “Manifest” is that the show somewhat struggles with this dilemma in the pilot itself.
After the flight lands, the FBI immediately begins questioning their whereabouts to figure out where exactly the flight went all those years ago. After 36 hours, we see happy family reunions. Saanvi meets her parents, Ben reunites with his wife and daughter, and Michaela meets her dad. The Stone siblings also learn their mother passed away in the time they’d been missing.
As the suspense builds about where the Flight 828 passengers might’ve disappeared to or how they even got back, “Manifest” slowly begins to lose control on its genre. Michaela struggles to adjust with her new reality. She begins hearing her own voice her head, almost God-like, giving instructions that in the end help her solve a crime.
Meanwhile, Saanvi gets a warm welcome at the hospital where she worked and she learns that her critical research work from 5 years ago has paid off; her work is the reason pediatric cancer patients have a real shot at survival. This is convenient for the Stone siblings because Cal— who had six months to live before boarding Flight 828 — can be part of the radical clinical trial based on her work.
When Saanvi’s supervisors refuse to admit Cal in the trial, citing uncertainty of his conditions, she fights back. She firmly believes that the reason both of them were on that ill-fated flight and were brought back is so that her work could save Cal.
Kaur portrays Saanvi fervently, in a way that it’s easy to connect with the character’s moral high ground. She might just be the best of the cast. It’s interesting to see her in this dynamic role. Saanvi is obviously an Indian-American character whose ethnicity doesn’t define her. In a show like this, that shouldn’t be surprising but still, Saanvi stands out amidst the cast and characters.
Dallas and Roxburgh, on the other hand, are trying too hard to make their characters likable. Either that or they’re not trying at all. Athena Karkanis, who plays Ben’s wife Grace, is easily one of the best parts of the show, as well.
The problem with “Manifest,” though, is that the show doesn’t necessarily know what it wants to be. Is it a high-concept mystery? Is it a supernaturally-tinged crime procedural? Is it a straight-up emotional drama that will try to blend in some suspense? The show needs to figure out (and soon) what to do with it’s many pieces.
It’s hard to understand the direction “Manifest” is trying to take in just one episode so hopefully, it will build on its strengths as more episodes roll out. The pilot ends with all the passengers coming together to watch the plane they flew in blow itself up. Apparently, “this is only the beginning.” Hopefully, it’s worth it to make it to the end.
“Manifest” airs on Mondays at 10/9c only on NBC. The pilot is available to stream on Hulu. You can watch the first 9 minutes in a clip released by the network here: