If you’re one of those people who hasn’t stopped mourning the end of the classic TV show Lost, then NBC’s Manifest could very well be the show for you as it’s tough to watch it without thinking of the earlier series. The premise has the passengers of Montego Air Flight 828 take off from Jamaica to New York, but when they land five-and-a-half-years have passed in the real world while insofar as they’re concerned, it’s only been a few hours. Where did they go? What happened to them and how will they adjust to their new reality? Those questions — as well as why they’re starting to hear voices in their heads that are giving them directions — are at the heart of the show.
Josh Dallas, Prince Charming on ABC’s long-running Once Upon a Time, plays Ben Stone, an associate professor who returns home to find that his wife, Grace (Athena Karkanis), has moved on in the intervening five years and found new love. As the actor explains it, when he originally read the script, he absolutely felt the Lost vibe.
“We’ve been compared to Lost and I think that’s a great comparison,” he says. “Lost was such a phenomenal show that paved the way for shows like ours. But while Manifest definitely takes a page out of the Lost book, we’re more like Lost meets This is Us. Not only is it about the high concept mythology of our show, but it’s also about this very grounded family drama that we’re presented and the complexities this family is going through.”
Josh’s co-star on the show is Melissa Roxburgh, who plays Ben’s sister, Michaela, a New York City police officer who discovers that her ex-fiance, Det. Jared Vasquez (J.R. Ramirez), is now married to her best friend.
Referring to the differences between her and Josh’s characters, she explains, “Ben and Michaela are very opposite. Ben is a very logical, fact-based, science-based kind of guy. Michaela likes to be a bit more grey; she leans towards the unknown and goes with the flow. So with this mystery hanging over their head, she’s leaning back towards the spiritual aspect of what could or couldn’t have happened with them, and Ben’s trying to take the logical approach. They’re going to butt heads on that, but the good thing is that they’re going to balance each other out. We’re going to see episodes where they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum. He’s saying, ‘Walk away from this,’ and she’s saying, ‘Let’s dive into this.’ And then they’re going to flip-flop. She’s going to be, like, ‘I can’t do this anymore’ and he’ll be saying, ‘We’ve got to figure this out.’ But at the end of the day, what’s really awesome about Ben and Michaela is that they’ll always have each other’s back and will balance each other out.”
Adds Josh, “They’re brother and sister. They’re the best of friends and the worst of enemies, but they’re always there for each other. They both went through the same experience as far as what’s happening to them. The voices — the ‘callings’ — does strain them in a certain way, because Michaela thinks it’s one thing and Ben thinks there’s an answer, so they will bump up against each other about that.”
For writer and showrunner Jeff Rake, the journey to Manifest was actually a fairly long one, his having come up with the initial concept for it about a decade ago.
“I was driving my minivan with my wife an four kids and we were about halfway between Los Angeles and the Grand Canyon,” Jeff reflects. “I was just being a Machiavellian TV writer, trying to think about a big sexy idea for a TV show. Ideally, it would be an idea that was huge and compelling, but also incredibly emotional at its core. While I was on that family vacation, I was thinking about the importance of family togetherness and what might be a big idea that would tear a family apart and create long-lasting ramifications. That’s where it began, the notion of something that splits a family in two and then would launch a journey as that family started to come back together again. I pitched it around and nobody wanted it.”
Seven years later, on March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared along with its passengers without a trace. “Suddenly,” says Jeff, “my crazy pie in the sky idea felt a little bit more relatable, but I was busy working on another show and so a couple of more years went by. Then I took this out again and could talk about Malaysian Airlines in the context of this idea, and this time it generated a lot of interest and, happily, we ended up at NBC.
“One of the interesting things about the show,” he adds, “is that we tear a couple of relationships apart and then bring them back together in a way that is incredibly complicated, but without moral culpability. There are two core relationship triangles at the center of the show. There’s a marriage in which a wife has understandably moved on. There was a broken engagement in what your fiance understood and moved on. And now everybody comes back together again, and no one is to blame for any of it. In the show, those who had been left behind are dealing with the consequences of a passage of time, having mourned the loss of lovers, of children; healed, and moved on with their lives, only then to have the passion thrown back in their faces.
“So that’s half the equation. On the other hand, for the passengers, it’s only been a day and they come home to this incredible shock to the system where the rest of the world has moved on, but their heart and head are in the same place that they were yesterday. So it’s an incongruous dichotomy for those who had been left behind with the passage of time. The fact that their headspace is completely different adds an extra layer of complexity. That’s part of the confusion and moral ambiguity. And then there’s the investigation and the weird stuff that starts happening inside their heads, which just adds to the complexity.”
Exploring the Callings
As noted, voices of the mind giving some of the characters directions is a part of the show, though it hasn’t been made clear exactly what is going on with that.
“What we’re going to come to discover is that these callings, and what they lead our characters to do, often lead to a good result — until they don’t,” teases Jeff. “That’s going to fuel this ongoing debate that exists between Ben and Michaela. Ben is a skeptic, Michaela is a lapsed believer who is starting to believe again, but we’re going to keep everyone on their toes by seeing a mix of good and bad results. Things start to go sideways, and every time something goes wrong, Ben believes it’s reason enough these voices need to be doubted. Who knows where they’re coming from? Is there a puppet master behind all of this, leading them down a path, giving them enough good results so that they will kind of fall in line, only for something terrible to happen when they least expect it?
“The last thing we want,” he elaborates, “is for everybody to fall into a complacency where they believe that they can just blindly follow where they’re being led, because, again, when they least expect it, it could lead to something really negative with terrible consequences.”
The mystery of Manifest can be followed every Monday night on NBC.