Every new television series bets against cancellation. But there is something unusually optimistic about launching a show whose premise is predicated upon a mystery that may not be explained until a specific, stated later date. In "FlashForward," which premieres tonight on ABC, every person in the whole wide world passes out for two minutes and 17 seconds, during which time they are transported into the future -- to April 29, 2010, at 10 p.m. PST, to be exact -- right around the time the first season of this show will be wrapping up, if all goes well.
After "Lost" took off, back in 2004, it inspired a spate of other shows, not necessarily science fiction, that were serial in design and kept back secrets only a full-season order would reveal -- "The Nine," "Kidnapped," "Threshold," "Six Degrees," "Jericho," "Prison Break," to name but a few. Most disappeared from the air before their tale was fully told, and with some exceptions -- "Fringe" springs to mind -- the trend has since been toward more straightforward, cards-on-the-table dramas.
After an opening flourish of crashed cars and smoky chaos -- it takes only a couple of minutes of unconsciousness to turn Los Angeles into a disaster movie, apparently, smoke pouring from City Hall, from Disney Hall -- we flash not forward but back, four hours: It is daybreak, and we're going to meet our cast in a series of ever more rapidly intercut scenes.
There is Mark (Joseph Fiennes), who will shortly be revealed as an FBI agent; his wife, Olivia (Sonya Walger -- Penny Widmore on "Lost"), who will shortly be revealed to be a surgeon; and their sitter Nicole (Peyton List), who will shortly be revealed having sex with her boyfriend while Mark and Olivia's daughter is asleep upstairs. There is Bryce (Zachary Knighton), down at the pier, watching surfers in slow motion; he has a gun and will turn out to be an intern working with Olivia. There is Aaron (Brian F. O'Byrne), who is a lineman for the city, and Mark's AA sponsor. And there is Demetri (John Cho, Sulu in the recent "Star Trek" movie and Harold of Harold & Kumar fame), Mark's partner. They are on a stakeout over by the photogenic Chinatown Gold Line stop, in touch by radio with fellow agent Janis (Christine Woods) and boss Stan (Courtney B. Vance), back at the office. And Dominic Monaghan -- Charlie from "Lost," to toss that lucky coin again -- is set to join the cast as someone not yet described.
Mark and Demetri set off chasing an SUV full of suspected terrorists, navigate some expensive stunts and finally, swerving to avoid a fuel truck, run smack dab into a wall of film effects that transport Mark into the future -- his future -- where he is drinking again and being menaced by men in plastic masks.
As in "Lost," fate is the main course here, raising questions endlessly restated across the eons of time-travel literature. If you know the future, or think you do, what do you, or can you, do about it? Do you inevitably, like Oedipus, fulfill the prophecy by the very act of trying to avoid it? Or is the future, as it is in Dickens -- the script makes a significant passing reference to "A Christmas Carol" -- unwritten? "Are these the shadows of the things that Will be," Scrooge asked the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, "or are they shadows of things that May be, only?"
Given the subject, it's almost appropriate how unusually difficult it is to get a fix on the show. The pilot is melodramatically eventful, though the dialogue can sound phony. But the show could go either way -- be kind of great or pretty awful, depending on what comes next, how the writers plan to explain this thing and whether we are going to have any fun on the way to the explanation. (The Robert J. Sawyer book on which the series is loosely based is probably not the place to look for clues.) It's a decent but not brilliant beginning.
"Lost" worked early on by distracting the viewer with sex and scenery and a shameless indulgence in random eerie coincidence while the writers tried to work out what the show might actually be about. (There is a nice "Lost"-style moment here when Mark encounters a kangaroo loose on the streets of downtown, after the communal blackout.) But we have seen a lot of doctors and FBI agents on TV -- four of the main characters work for the bureau -- and spent a lot of time on the streets of Los Angeles. We may need more than parlor tricks to take us out of that all-too-familiar world.
My crystal ball remains cloudy on this matter.
When: 8 tonight
Rating: TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for violence)