The Americans who populate the ABC series "FlashForward" are, on balance, a morose lot. And justifiably so: They are paralyzed by their 137-second visions of the future, part of a weird global bout of unconsciousness in which all humans see glimpses of their lives at the same moment six months onward.
The main character, recovering alcoholic FBI agent Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes), sees a tomorrow in which he's drinking again and pursued by killers. His wife, Dr. Olivia Benford (Sonya Walger), sees herself intimate with another man — a potentially dangerous man. Benford's partner, Demetri Noh (John Cho), is haunted by his complete lack of a vision — and his certainty that the blackness means he's going to die.
And from Nicole Kirby (Peyton List), a 19-year-old struggling with what she saw in her flash-forward, comes this intriguing bit of pretzel logic: "How do I atone for something I haven't done yet?"
For "FlashForward," which returns Thursday (8 p.m. EDT) after a three-month hiatus, all of this is not merely science fiction, though it fits nicely into the crop of weird-twists-on-reality programming in recent years — "Lost," "Fringe" and "Life on Mars" among the offerings.
With its meditations on inevitability, this show taps into something far more fundamental about the American character: the ability to shape our tomorrows.
In the beginningAmerica started, for the most part, with a group of people — the Massachusetts Puritans — who believed that no matter what they did in this world, they were predestined to a certain lot in the afterlife. In short, though good behavior was required, the activities of life weren't worth much in the context of eternity.
But that quickly became the antithesis of what America was all about. This quickly became a society whose hallmark was the ability to write your own story, to shape what came next for you and yours. People came here to build new lives, to construct new destinies — to change the outcome.
With the Declaration of Independence, it actually became national policy — for what was a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but a society-wide assertion that the future is ours to be written?
Which is why, perhaps, "FlashForward" is so deeply unsettling. It masquerades as a locked-room mystery with sci-fi undertones. But in reality, it's a meditation on Americanism — a story that tells Americans they cannot control the outcome. And that's not something modern Americans are accustomed to hearing.
Sheer smallness of humansThe show's producers are clearly aware of this tension. Every moment is suffused with a sense of helplessness. Usually in modern television drama, people are trying to surmount the improbable or, sometimes, the impossible. Rarely is an entire show's ensemble cast dedicated to overcoming the inevitable.
This is what "FlashForward" hinges upon. While the sci-fi is rollicking, though at times muddled, what's most striking is the sheer smallness of the human beings trying to figure this out. Even the heroes, the main protagonists, are in the same lot as everybody else — that is, in the dark.
One character whose vision included a bird flying into a plate-glass window tapes the glass pre-emptively so the creature might see it and survive — and so perhaps the outcome might change. Others go millennial, choosing to eat, drink and be merry in expectation that tomorrow we die. Another chooses suicide — the most drastic way of subverting the outcome.
And Demetri, struggling with what he believes will be his end, immerses himself in the comfort of resignation: "At least I don't have to deal with the uncertainty." It's a mindset that many 17th-century Puritans would recognize.
"We're all prophets now," says one character. But if seeing the future means you can't change it, freewill — the underpinning of society — means nothing at all.
An unwelcome possibility
This is a society that, for more than 200 years, has elevated the future into a secular Holy Grail: "Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there'll be sun." It makes you wonder: How did those proto-Americans in the 1600s live their lives believing — and, in many cases, being comforted by — the sense that whatever they did here, it didn't really matter in heaven? That is truly solid faith.
The reappearance of "FlashForward" places the characters squarely on the precipice of the date their visions documented. The pressure cooker will be on, particularly with hints that the outcomes revealed by the visions might indeed be changed.
Which, of course, raises the question: What will be more disruptive — if their premonitions come true, or if they don't?
During one episode, a version of the Beatles' song "Across the Universe" rises in crescendo as its payoff line is delivered: "Nothing's gonna change my world." And despite its occasional narrative scatteredness, this notion is what makes "FlashForward" compelling, even claustrophobic television.
It raises the unwelcome, ugly possibility that no matter what we do, no matter how hard we work and how much we manage to achieve, the outcome will be the same. We can amass all the knowledge we want — and build our towers and our technologies — but in the end we might not be the authors of our own stories.
And in America, that's the most unsettling notion of all.