Thursday, September 24, 2009

(Auto) Pilot: A review of the Flash Forward pilot script

I made a promise a while back to review a bunch of the one-hour pilot scripts I read for the fall shows now premiering, and so far I've been really bad at following through on that promise. But better late than never, right? Maybe?

Today, in honor of its premiere tonight, I'd like to review the pilot script for a little show I like to call Flash Forward. Because that's the name of the show.


When I heard the premise for Flash Forward (that everyone in the world blacks out for 2 minutes and 17 seconds, during which each person sees what is happening 6 months into their future), I wasn't interested. It didn't seem like an idea that could sustain itself. I mean, 6 months, really? Next I saw the trailer... and came away similarly tepid. Generally I'm a huge fan of speculative fiction, but this just wasn't doing it for me.

Then I got my grubby little mitts on a bunch of one-hour pilot scripts for new shows this season. Flash Forward was, hands down, the best written and most interesting. Goyer and Braga remembered the one thing I had forgotten about TV, the thing that unites almost all great, classic shows: it's about the characters.

Duh, you say? Well, of course, but thinking about the premise had pushed that to the back of my mind, and for whatever reason the characters just didn't come through to me in the previews.

Thank goodness they do in the script, where Goyer and Braga spend the first four pages letting us live with Mark and Olivia Benford as they go through their normal lives: the morning run, fixing breakfast for their daughter, repairing the garage door, going to work, etc. The couple even have the too-cute habit of telling each other they hate each other as a way of saying "I love you." Schmaltzy? Yes. But oddly endearing as well.

Over the first ten pages we're introduced to the rest of the main characters, most going about the mundane tasks of daily life (even if, for Mark and his partner, Dominic, daily life includes stakeouts and dangerous criminals). Only Bryce Varley is shown to us at any truly important moment of his existence -- as we first see him, he stands at the edge of a pier, about to shoot himself.

But regardless of what they're doing before, it's about to be an important moment in the life of every single person in the world. Because as Bryce starts to pull the trigger on his gun, and Mark and Dominic dodge traffic in that car chase you've seen a million times in action movies -- it happens.

We FLASH to another time and place, and Mark sees what's he's doing 5 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days into the future. He knows the date precisely because he notices it on his desk calendar. Future Mark is working on a case involving things his present-day self knows absolutely nothing about, but he's clearly anxious and "been through hell." And that's before two masked men appear with guns and...

And we're back in the present, where the car chase has morphed into the largest, most horrifying traffic accident ever. Every single car on the freeway has crashed, and people are screaming everywhere. Fires dot the landscape as Mark climbs onto a car to survey the damage. Was it a natural disaster? A terrorist attack?

Over the course of the rest of the episode, we learn that every single person in the world blacked out for the aforementioned 2 minutes and 17 seconds. Anyone driving at the time crashed their car. Planes fell from the sky. Patients in surgery died. Carnage and disaster everywhere. We also learn that it wasn't really a black out, because Mark's experience was not unique -- people everywhere saw 2 minutes and 17 seconds of their future. And all of them who happened to see the date and time confirm that it was exactly the same as the date Mark saw.

More importantly, we learn what future each of our main characters saw, and how it affects them. Mark will be driven by the mystery of the case he saw himself working on. Olivia will be haunted by the knowledge that she won't have a life with Mark in six months. Bryce will take what he saw as a second chance at life, and a reason to keep going. And perhaps most interesting is Mark's partner, Dominic -- he didn't see anything in his future. Literally. It was just... black. Does this mean he's asleep in six months? Dead? Does he really want to know?

Questions like these are what made the script so affecting for me, and finally answered my unspoken question about why I should care about the show: because I'm invested in these people figuring out their lives and trying to live with their newfound knowledge. Are they trapped by "fate"? Can they change things now that they know about them in advance? Are the things they saw even real? Will their relationships survive, knowing what they know? Or at least... what they think they know?

And as everyone deals with the emotional repercussions of these revelations and chooses to accept or deny what they saw, Goyer and Braga throw another curve ball at the audience at the end of the script that advances the mystery of the phenomenon and calls into question everything we've seen. I won't give it away, but suffice to say it's an intriguing bit of info that could take the plot in many interesting directions.

As much as the characters and plot drew me in, I would be remiss as a writer if I neglected to mention how good the actual words on the page are. The dialogue is crisp and affecting. Characters react in believable ways. The act breaks actually feel dramatic, the way they are supposed to. And, since this is my own personal pet peeve, the action does what action is supposed to do and DESCRIBES WHAT THE AUDIENCE SEES, rather than falling into the trap of novice and uber-successful professional writer alike: telling us what we're supposed to see. I'm looking at you, J.J. Abrams.

Here's hoping the Goyer and Braga have a monster hit on their hands, because I'm incredibly excited to see where they take this story.

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