Just when you thought network TV had given up making new expensive, serial dramas, along comes ABC's "FlashForward" tonight at 8. And it is as compelling a new series as you going to see this fall.
It's smart, richly textured, complex and filled with suspense and intellectual challenge - in short, it has all the things network television is supposed to have abandoned in favor of cheap reality shows.
And you know what? I wouldn't be surprised if it is gone by March. "FlashForward" feels too much like the crop of a dozen richly textured, complex serial dramas with titles like "Vanished," "Kidnapped" and "The Nine" that debuted in the fall of 2006 and crashed and burned by midseason in one of the most expensive bonfires of network vanity in decades.
"FlashForward" even has the sociological mojo I so loved in many of those serialized dramas from the Class of 2006 that seemed to reflect and speak directly to the darkness, uncertainty and fear of our post-9/11 national life.
Here's the premise and event at the core of the ABC series: At 11 a.m. on a sunny day in the fall of 2009, everyone on Earth blacks out for 2 minutes and 17 seconds. Of course, planes and cars crash, people die on operating tables, and there is a period of mass confusion. Think of the minutes and hours after the planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, or the first few days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
In fact, there are street scenes clearly designed to evoke those shared memories and the sense of fear and panic.
Viewers experience the events and post-traumatic reaction through the eyes of a family of three in Los Angeles: FBI Agent Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes), his wife, Dr. Olivia Benford (Sonya Walger), and their preschool-age daughter, Charlie. Other key players are Mark Benford's partner, Demetri Noh (John Cho); their FBI boss, Stanford Wedeck (Courtney B. Vance); and Dr. Bryce Varley (Zachary Knighton), who works at the hospital with Olivia Benford.
When the blackout hits, Agents Benford and Noh are in the middle of a car chase in pursuit of suspected terrorists, while Dr. Benford is in the middle of surgery.
The mystery they face upon regaining consciousness centers on trying to figure out what happened - and explaining visions that almost everyone had while they were out. The visions all seem to involve a flash-forward to a day six months into the future - April 29, 2010.
Here's where the pilot starts getting post-apocalyptic spooky. After the blackout, Charlie announces to her baby sitter, "I dreamt there are no more good days."
Ah, the child with the dark vision - I think there were only three or four of them in the fall of 2006.
Both Dr. and Agent Benford have equally troubling visions. As for Agent Noh, he has none and wonders if it means he will be dead in six months. This is a not a happy show.
Still, for all the similarities to the serialized dramas from 2006, there is one wild-card factor that might make help this series avoid their failure: the huge change in America in the last three years. Social reality today is much darker and far more uncertain than it was three years ago.
I think the fear of losing jobs, homes and any sense of optimism about the future has more Americans lying awake at night in 2009 than the fear of another terrorist attack did in 2006.
What I'm saying is that maybe those expensive, finely crafted serialized dramas were a bit ahead of the culture in 2006. And now, maybe we're ready to embrace the angst and darkness seeping through this American life. "FlashForward" is certainly steeped in both.
"FlashForward" airs at 8 tonight on WMAR, Channel 2.