There are things that don’t surprise you (or me) at all, such as England losing in a penalty shootout at a major soccer tournament. Or rising temperatures, wildfires, floods and increasing extreme-weather alerts, with many parts of the world devastated by the effects of climate change. I mean, all politicians expressing shock and surprise about that should be sending notes of apology to Greta Thunberg – who of course isn’t surprised at all.
In comparison, shocking surprises in the TV arena are piddling. But still, viewers can be taken aback and deeply puzzled.
For instance, Manifest (now streaming on Netflix) arrived on NBC in 2018 and nobody cared much. Most reviewers – and many viewers – saw it as a lame twist on the previous hit series Lost. See, on Manifest, a bunch of people on a plane from Jamaica to New York are a bit traumatized by a bout of severe turbulence, but the flight lands safely. Thing is, everyone at the airport is stunned – because the flight disappeared en route ... five years earlier. Bafflement and highly emotional scenes ensue, and soon it appears that those passengers have acquired unusual powers of perception.
Manifest trundled along on NBC. Nobody raved about it. Then in June, the first two seasons landed on Netflix. Soon, the series was the streamer’s top show, with almost 2.5 billion minutes of viewing time for its first two seasons in the week June 14 to 20. Few series acquired by Netflix have ever reached that number. That same week, NBC cancelled the show after three seasons (in a rather confusing situation, the first two seasons of Manifest are now on Netflix and the third is on Hulu in the United States).
What’s going on here? Well, first, Manifest is set up as a mystery box to be unpacked in weekly instalments as new revelations emerge. On NBC, you had to wait a week to see that unpacking unfold. You can easily binge-watch on Netflix, cruising through multiple episodes with no wait time.
Also, there’s the plot itself – which, when you binge the show, is more engaging than you might think. There are multiple characters (191 people were on that plane, including the pilot, who is furious that the authorities think he did something weird) but the protagonists are Michaela Stone (Melissa Roxburgh), her brother Ben (Josh Dallas) and their loved ones. Michaela is of course disturbed that her fiancé married another woman – her best friend – in her absence. Ben is also upset, but his wife says, “The universe just gave all of us a do-over.” Their young son Cal (Jack Messina), who has leukemia, was also on the flight. The cancer did not progress, but new treatments for the disease are now available.
While Michaela begins hearing voices that direct her to do peculiar things and she helps solve a crime in the process, something else is developing in the plotline that might explain why Manifest is suddenly a phenomenon on Netflix.
Even in the pilot episode, it becomes clear the mystery at the heart of the lost-plane story has less to do with paranormal shenanigans or aliens than it has to do with good old-fashioned Christian faith. The flight number of the plane that went missing was 828 – in keeping with the blatant obviousness of network TV, it’s a reference to a Bible passage, Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Those voices that Michaela begins to hear – could that be God’s guidance toward goodness? The title of the series is less to do with a list of flight passengers and crew, and more about the principles of faith that every Christian should know and live by in order to receive “manifestation” – or something along those lines. Apparently, there are arguments about whether it is right or wrong to believe in manifesting what you want.
What you’ve got, really, is a religious parable – it’s plausible to deduce that the startling and sudden popularity of Manifest on Netflix is because of intense interest from Christians who want to see their faith represented in a network TV series. The series’s plot and themes may resonate differently with them – for example, it could be suggested that those passengers on the plane died and were resurrected.
If Manifest is presented to you on Netflix as a huge hit and you’re tempted to indulge, just be aware that it is not exactly the thrilling mystery you might assume it to be. There’s a reason many reviewers found it dull and more plodding than enigmatic. It’s a so-so series. As it progresses, the Christian theme is less than subtle. And for all its popularity on Netflix, the streaming service has decided not to pick up the show and develop further seasons. Figure out that puzzle yourself.
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