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FlashForward: "White to Play"

Illustration for article titled iFlashForward/i: White to Play
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FlashForward’s second episode opens with a nicely creepy image, then immediately undercuts said image with the revelation that it’s all a big gag. That’s perhaps a bit harsh of a way to classify it, but at the same time, it’s a fitting summation of the episode, which has second episode problems all over the place before, again, righting itself with a pretty effective cliffhanger. This, in and of itself, wouldn’t be enough to make me drop the show – second episode problems are pretty common on series with this many things going on – but I wouldn’t be shocked if it was enough to make others drop the show. There are some cool moments in the episode, but most of them are so endemic to the premise that they aren’t somehow the result of the series discovering what its characters are capable of. “White to Play” is a long series of scenes of characters either restating the premise or telling each other things they already know. This doesn’t worry me as much in episode two as it would in, say, episode 13, but it’s definitely not the best foot to get the series off on.

That opening image is of a bunch of kids lying on a playground, passed out, seemingly, the  camera hovering over them as the voices of children singing “Ring Around the Rosy” plays on the soundtrack ominously. Kids in seeming peril is always a good go-to for a series trying to establish a sense of creepy unease, and the nursery rhyme is a callback to other ominous times in our history. But soon, the kids are revealed to be playing a new game called “Blackout,” which is also sorta creepy but not as chilling as seeing the kids when they were actually blacked out. Creepy little kid Charlie, of course, is just watching them as they play, and then she gets in trouble by shoving a kid, and then the show is enmeshed in pretty boring domestic drama.

Don’t get me wrong. I love me some domestic drama playing out against the face of catastrophe, but the series still seems as though it can’t quite figure out how to balance this with the science fiction excitement and the post-apocalyptic weirdness. Rather than doubling down on any one of these elements, the series instead is teasing out all of them in the same episode, creating an environment where the need to adhere to the strictures of the plot and how it moves forward ends up hurting the character moments that might make the domestic drama play. When we find out that Dmitri is definitely going to be murdered, it barely plays, even with the wonderful Shohreh Aghdashloo being the one who tells Dmitri that he’s going to be murdered (and on what day, too – helpful!). If we spent more time with Dmitri and found out what makes him tick instead of just jumping to straight to this, maybe it would have had more impact.

The problem with all of the characters being pieces on a chess board instead of people who’ve really gone through something terrible is that because they don’t have much to distinguish themselves, it becomes absurdly easy to predict where the story is going at any given moment, a problem on a series like this that relies on its twisty plot more than anything else. Obviously, I could be wrong, but it seems pretty likely that Dmitri will sleep with Janis and father her child, and that will lead to his murder at the hands of his fiancée, who was probably at the wedding of her to someone else in the flash forward. Admittedly, it’s not the cleanest plot summary in the world, but I’ll be sorta surprised if at least half of it doesn’t happen (the Dmitri being Janis’ child’s father half, specifically). That’s the problem when the characters are just there to be at the service of the plot – it makes everything they do too predictable. This also undercuts the emotional moments. Wouldn't Lloyd's confession to his son that his wife was dead have played even a little bit better had we known anything about any of them beyond the fact that Lloyd was future Olivia's lover?

All of this might be forgivable if the series gave off a sense that it didn’t quite have its characters down yet but it did understand how they might react to an apocalypse, but, instead, the end of the world-ish scenario from last week is barely touched on here and then only to remind us that it happened. All second episodes tend to suffer from the characters having to restate the premise over and over and over and using on-the-nose dialogue to re-establish everyone’s connections to each other, but this episode is particularly egregious in that regard. Much of the first half is made up of people not only restating what they saw in their flash forwards but also restating all of the thematic ideas that arose in the pilot.

The second half of the episode is better, pretty much by default, because the writers realize they have to come up with some sort of story to tie all of this together, which sends Mark and Dmitri to Pigeon, Utah, where they’re going to track down a lead and end up going to some sort of doll factory, where they meet a man who spouts gibberish at them and then lights the factory on fire. Very little of this makes sense, but it has some cool images, and it at least doesn’t involve the characters talking about how the future could be either destiny or free will. Also, the dolls sang “Ring Around the Rosy,” and it became obvious that it was they who were singing in the opening. They! Plus, it leads to some cool moments at the end where everyone realizes that D. Gibbons was likely on the other end of that phone call in the pilot’s cliffhanger (if nothing else, this series knows how to end an episode). The final cliffhanger, with Charlie saying that D. Gibbons is a very bad man, will again have me coming back next week, but at some point, ending your episode in a cool fashion becomes a point of diminishing returns.

As I said above, second episode problems are pretty common in ambitious series (the second episode of Lost was kind of a mess, too, though a much better-constructed mess), especially ones that are trying to be, essentially, three different shows all at once, so I’m probably not going to drop this one down to the D-range. But it was, for the most part, not very good. I think that the creators of FlashForward, like me, like a lot of the ideas behind the show, but I think that they’ve trapped themselves so much with the relentless march forward on the plot that they’re stuck with a situation where they’re simply unable to deepen the characters or scenarios, so forced are they to spell out more and more of a plot that proves, so far, way too easy to predict.

Grade: C-

Stray observations:

  • Obviously, I could be wrong about my future episode speculation, but I don’t think anyone in the audience thought the flash forward was an accident, so spending a whole act spelling out that it wasn’t felt doubly pointless. Hence, the predictability.
  • I find it remarkably hard to believe that only this FBI office would be investigating the flash forward and that they would be shocked others were investigating it.
  • This series needs to get a better composer. The music here is way too overbearing.
  • Seriously, the entire world, save one or two people, blacked out a few days ago, and everyone’s acting like there was a minor earthquake. THERE’S A GIANT HOLE IN THE US BANK TOWER, SHOW.
  • Despite all of this, I have a weird faith in this show. Hope springs eternal. And I think next week we get Dominic Monaghan as a super genius or something. So that will be … something.

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