Maybe we should only be watching FlashForward in the odd-numbered episodes because after last week's complete snore, "Believe" was quite possibly the show's finest hour yet. It probably doesn't quite deserve an A-, but I believe in using these grades as encouraging signs for anyone from the show who reads this (if, indeed, anyone does), so there it is. "Believe" is the first episode of the show that legitimately feels like an episode of the show I thought I'd be watching when I signed up to cover the series, and it's the first to really pull off the unique blend of science fiction and character drama that the series pitched itself as in its publicity materials. There's still stuff in this episode that keeps it back from being as good as it could be, but most of it - particularly the opening act and the two last acts - is genuinely good television.
I think there are a number of reasons for this, so instead of the usual format, let's break "Believe" down list style. Everybody likes lists!
1.) "Believe" minimizes the amount of time we spend with the FBI team investigating just what caused the blackout. To be fair, there's enough of this that the midsection of the episode sags. Every time we go back to the FBI headquarters, the episode deflates just a little bit, particularly when everyone's shouting about how Demetri should get to hear the phone call he got back in episode two or three that pinpointed the date of his death. The police procedural aspect of this show feels so limiting precisely because it turns a giant, exciting premise into something that feels like every other show on TV. It also has a bad case of stop-and-start plotting, suggesting that the show's famed five-year plan is more limiting than it might have seemed to be at first. It's like the show is so dedicated to following the plan that it has no flexibility, and plot points get raised and then dropped, just to stretch out the speed the revelations will hit. But, that said, this episode had the least time with the FBI guys of any episode so far, and that was largely because …
2.) The show finally makes good on its promise to follow its characters and see how the flash forward affected their lives. The series has spent much of its time saying it would do this and then trapping the characters in boring plots that were either utterly predictable or predicated entirely on their debates about whether the future was destined to happen or something that could be changed. The last odd-numbered episode, "The Gift," got around this by abruptly shifting the perspective from the wider investigation to the troubled Agent Gough, but this episode left behind the story of the flash forward investigation for the most part, choosing, instead, to focus on Bryce, the suicidal doctor who was so undeveloped a character prior to this episode that I couldn't have told you his name without looking it up. The episode's other focus came from Keiko, Bryce's destined love, a girl living in Japan and struggling to find her purpose.
When the focus of this episode first became apparent, I think much of the show's audience groaned. It seemed highly improbable that the series could ever possibly do a story about Bryce searching all of Japan for his love without coming off as either condescending or utterly predictable. And while, yeah, there was quite a bit of predictability in the storyline (if anyone actually thought that Bryce was going to go to Houston, you probably absolutely love this show), it was a well-executed love story for the most part. Everything this show promised to be and wasn't was laid out in that exemplary opening act, where we follow Bryce after his cancer diagnosis and Keiko through her boring life. As Bryce moves closer and closer to killing himself and Keiko finds less and less satisfaction with what she's doing, the series uses the tension inherent in the idea of what's coming to drive the storyline. When the flash forward comes and both characters see each other, experience the love they'll feel for each other, it's a beautiful and surprisingly understated moment. It's hard to do epic love stories about soulmates in this cynical age, but in the first ten minutes of this episode, FlashForward made me, well, believe. And maybe that's because …
3.) The series is finally learning the right lessons from Lost. Much has been made of how the series wants to be Lost, but the series also comes with a built-in handicap. The crazy, world-spanning science fiction stuff comes in the pilot. Imagine if Lost had opened with an episode all about these people trying to enlist in the DHARMA Initiative and ask yourself if you would have stuck around for that. The first season of the show - its one mass appeal season - was so compelling precisely because the series kept its focus limited. Every episode had a very simple story, the mythology of the Island was mostly kept in the background, and every character got an episode or two of focus and development. By season five, the show could do the world-spanning storytelling built into its premise, but it had, importantly, built up to that. FlashForward tried to dive directly into the really big stories, and it suffered for it. By dialing back questions of global conspiracies and apocalyptic meltdowns and focusing on one guy trying to find one girl, the series finally felt like the story of some characters reeling from apocalyptic events. The final two acts had the show's requisite crazy plotting - that sushi restaurant in Bryce's flash forward is in LA - but they were grounded in character work. And that made everything that much better. Of course, it didn't hurt that …
4.) The episode highlighted the supporting cast. Joseph Fiennes is a fine, fine actor. But he's proved almost criminally wrong for the part of Mark Benford, unable to find the character's ostensibly fun-loving center and instead playing him as an intensity machine with an inconsistent American accent. While the story featuring Aaron and Tracy dealing with her turning to the drink after her Afghanistan drink was, all things considered, something I'd seen before, it had a muted tension to it that I quite liked, almost completely driven by Brian F. O'Byrne, whose acting has been one of the show's most consistent elements. I don't terribly care about what Tracy saw in Afghanistan that sent Jericho after her, but I do like her and her father exploring their fractured relationship in the hands of these actors. That's less true of scenes between Fiennes and Sonya Walger (who, truth be told, was good in her scenes with Bryce tonight), which feel tortured. But I do wonder if I'm thinking all of this because …
5.) The episode played to the series' biggest strength: its direction. FlashForward's direction has always been better than every other element in its arsenal. They brought over Battlestar Galactica head director Michael Rymer for a handful of visually impressive episodes early in the season, and Nick Gomez has continued to find some gorgeous images (like Gough atop the building) in the previous handful. Tonight's episode is from another Battlestar vet, Michael Nankin, one of the few TV directors who has something approaching a personal stamp. (To be fair, I interviewed Nankin earlier this year, which may explain why I know more about his technique than most TV directors.) Nankin loves scenes of the characters being quiet, of moments when the actors can find who these people are amid the bombast. Look at how he shoots Keiko's flash forward as an absolute explosion of her joy or of the quiet shots of her staring into the mirror and making funny faces before her day begins. Hell, he even manages to make silly moments like Keiko playing air guitar almost work. I'm sure all of these moments were in Nicole Yorkin and Dawn Prestwich's solid and occasionally moving script, but Nankin finds the solace in them where other directors might buzz over them.
Is this going to be the future of FlashForward from here? I actually have no idea, but I suspect the show will be back to its pitfalls and old shenanigans with next week's episode. I hope that ABC and the show's producers look at how much better "Believe" was than the series' other episodes and figure out a way to apply its lessons more uniformly to the episodes to come, but I don't have a lot of hope. On the other hand, "Believe" is enough to buy me enough good will to get through at least February sweeps to see if the show has figured out a way to become the better series it's always promised to be. "Believe" isn't perfect television, but it suggests a show that is slowly figuring out how to improve.
- I do think there's something to this odd-numbered episodes theory. The pilot was good fun, the third episode was a mess but had several solid sequences, the fifth episode had more solid scenes than stupid scenes, and "The Gift" was genuinely affecting in places. When we say FlashForward has awful characters, maybe we mean the characters that are being focused on are awful.
- I liked the use of "Shelter from the Storm" in this episode, even if keeping Keiko and Bryce apart was rather irritating.
- Hell, even Peyton List's sexy babysitter character got something more compelling to play in this episode, standing in as Bryce's lifeline back to the U.S.