A look at the Christian subtext in a new show about a plane that went missing for five years
You might not expect a network drama to launch with a throughline grounded in a Bible verse, but that seems to be the case with NBC’s new series “Manifest,” premiering Monday Sept. 24 at 10/9C. The verse in question is Romans 8:28: “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”
“Manifest” begins on April 7, 2013, with the Stone family at the Montego Bay Airport in Jamaica, returning home from vacation. There are happily married Ben (Josh Dallas) and Grace (Athena Karkanis), their twins Olive (Luna Blaise) and Cal (Jack Messina), and Ben’s sister Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh), a police officer. But all is not well in the Stone’s world.
Cal is facing terminal leukemia because he’s not responding to treatment, while Michaela is plagued by guilt from a death she feels she caused in a car accident. Her mom, who is also with the family, starts quoting her favorite Bible verse (the aforementioned Romans 8:28) to try to give Michaela a more hopeful perspective, but Michaela wants no part of that idea.
When the passengers waiting to board their flight are told that it’s overbooked, the airline offers a $400 voucher to anyone willing to take a later plane, Montego Air Flight 828 (note the number’s significance). Ben, Cal, and Michaela take the airline up on their offer, with the rest of the family returning to New York on their previously scheduled flight.
While Flight 828 is in the air, they experience a massive amount of turbulence that threatens to take the plane down. Things settle down, however, so the pilot proceeds toward JFK. When the pilot identifies their flight, air traffic control seems confused, eventually redirecting the plane to Stewart Airport in Newburgh.
That’s where the passengers disembark and learn from a government agent that it is now Nov. 4, 2018. The plane had gone missing over five years ago, and all the passengers were presumed dead. Now, they’ve returned, not having aged a day, while their loved ones are all older, having moved on with their lives.
That’s the set up for the mystery and emotional drama at the heart of the series as it begins, and it presents opportunities to explore the passengers’ personal lives, as well as what’s going on in a larger sense. As one character says, “The universe just gave all of us a do over.”
“Manifest” has been compared to ABC’s TV series “Lost,” likely because it involves passengers on a plane that went missing – and also indulges in some seemingly supernatural/metaphysical plot threads.
“Lost” remains one of my favorite shows ever, so I don’t take the comparison lightly and admit that’s what made me check out the pilot for “Manifest” in the first place (The plane’s “turbulence” could easily have been caused by an explosion on “Lost’s” other-worldly island).
While there are some similarities, such as unknown connections between passengers, “Manifest” is also heading in its own direction. For instance, Michaela is either being blessed or cursed with hearing a voice in her head. Actually, it’s her own voice telling her to do things that will ultimately turn out to be helpful to other people. She has to learn to trust the voice and simply follow it.
There’s a scene in which Michaela is in a church, reading a Bible that she finds there. She’s got it open to Romans 8:28, and can’t help wondering if her mother (and St. Paul) are right. Can this situation, which has produced its share of heartache, also bring about some good? Can there be redemption from the sins of the past? Without giving away too much, I will say that one character gets a second chance that he wouldn’t have had before the plane’s disappearance.
There’s also the bigger question of why and how the plane disappeared for five years. There are no real hints about that right now, but that is an area where fans weren’t always happy with “Lost.”
Some viewers wanted “Lost” to end with a scientific explanation for everything, and hated it when showrunners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof opted for the supernatural resolution, bringing their Catholic (Cuse) and Jewish (Lindelof) sensibilities into play through their storytelling. “Lost” was my favorite series finale other than “MASH,” so they still have a fan in me.
Will “Manifest” go the same route? It remains to be seen. The show appears to want to ground itself in a more human story with spiritual elements. And that’s a good thing, since the majority of people in this country do believe in a higher power of some sort.
Watching the show through your particular faith tradition may reflect how you interpret what’s going on. But the main thing for a new show is to keep viewers coming back. The “Manifest” pilot gives them enough reasons to do that.
“Manifest” premieres on NBC on Monday Sept. 24 at 10/9C.