An unheralded television show aired on ABC back in 2009. It was cancelled after just one season in the spring of 2010. I somehow managed to get a copy of the DVD without knowing anything about it, and my teenage kids and I fell in love with it when we randomly picked it out of the backlog stack and gave it a try.
Premise: The entire world falls unconscious for 137 seconds, for unknown reasons. This causes all sorts of pandemonium, like car crashes, planes falling out of the sky, and other disasters you might expect from such an event.
As the world is coping with the massive loss of life, people begin comparing notes of the dreams they had while unconscious. In doing so, they discover coincidences that cannot be explained as anything other than visions of a moment six months in the future. For instance, someone has a vision of being in a meeting with someone they have never met before, but there is enough identifying information from the vision that the other individual can be tracked down. When contact is established, the other individual reveals they had the exact same vision, including the same actions, conversation, etc. Enough visions include looking at a calendar, clock, etc., that the moment of the vision of the future can be established, and all visions with such time-based details all agree with each other.
This causes all sorts of crises, including visions of being intimate with someone not your spouse, dealing with the aftermath of killing someone, discovering that someone you thought was dead is actually still alive. Worse, perhaps, is the people who do not have visions: the understand rapidly spreads that these people will be dead before the Flash Forward moment.
And as the world is dealing with this realization, the FBI discovers that the event may have been triggered deliberately by unknown, non-government entities. Moreover, closed-circuit television captures at least one person moving during the blackout: the blackout wasn’t, in fact, universal.
Then they discover that you can actually take actions to prevent your vision from coming true, in drastic fashion.
I think you can immediately think of multiple philosophical issues that arise from these various aspects and examples, and the television show doesn’t shy away from exploring them. My children and I always had plenty to discuss for more than an hour after watching each episode. There were plot twists to discuss, of course, but also the philosophical and psychological ramifications of events and developments. We had some discussions of fate, comparing/contrasting the actions of those who chose to prevent their future vision and how they did it with those who actually caused their vision to come about via their efforts to avoid it.
Particularly poignant was the relationship between the main protagonist (there are a lot of people you care about in the show) and his wife (also a protagonist) who had a vision of being intimate with a man she didn’t currently know. At the point of the blackout, they had a strong relationship and were both faithful. The knowledge of the apparent unfaithfulness did seem to both contribute to it coming about, but also seemed to supply motivation that might help prevent it. Watching the couple struggle through jealousy, guilt, and distress was extremely interesting, and it gave me several launching points for talking to my kids about marriage, love, trust, integrity, desire, dissatisfaction, and proper/improper ways of dealing with marital difficulties.
One person, an FBI agent who would be dead in six months, was engaged to be married. How does he tell his fiancee he will be dead? Particularly when her vision is of the wedding ceremony they planned? How can both their visions be real?
These stories both subvert and play straight the notion of Fate: can it be stopped? Does fighting it bring it about? The answer to both is Yes, and it seems to conclude that the future is in a box with Schroedinger’s Cat: you don’t know what happens until you get there and open it up. And the story was the better for it.
This is not a television show to binge watch. Nor is it a show to watch alone. This is one of the better “what would *I* do if…?” stories I’ve seen. Watch an episode, and then take a few days to let it sink in, to discuss it with the friends and family you watched it with. Then watch the next episode and have your mind blown. Rinse and repeat.
The show had declining viewership, and I really don’t see why. Of course, there were some very depressing points as the season went on, and confusing aspects, and developments we didn’t like. But we had the whole disc, so it was easy to continue watching. From that perspective, I guess I could see looking at the next episode coming up and deciding you have better things to do with your time. It is also true that the episodes were so dense with information that if you missed one, it would be nearly impossible to have any interest or ability to catch up with what was going on. This was in 2010, so I don’t think there were options to watch the shows online to actually see what you missed. So I guess I do see why, but I think a bunch of people missed out on an excellent story, and since it resulted in the series being cancelled, I think we are all the poorer for it.
The declining viewership meant the show was cancelled. The season finale was written and filmed before the cancellation, however, and this creates two problems: one, there is a cliffhanger over whether a character survives or not; two, there is a completely new set of intriguing Flash Forward visions, but this time 20 years in the future instead of just 6 months. I would like to have seen how they handled a 20-year gap.
But the series remains watchable. For as much love as Firefly got for its single season, I think this is better. The cast is large, and yet you actually know the characters more deeply than on Firefly. Firefly introduces a bunch of elements (particularly regarding River) that change the very nature of the series (making it really all about River); nothing like that happens in Flash Forward. In fact, the season doesn’t just stop, it concludes and wraps up almost all the stories. It is a pause. It is the end of the first act, but good enough to let you go on with your life without burning questions. Flash Forward ends like Star Wars: sure, you don’t know what happened to Darth Vader, and the Rebellion hasn’t won, but you get enough of the threads wrapped up that you don’t feel dissatisfied. Firefly is like what you would feel like if they never filmed The Return of the Jedi: imagine never knowing what happened to Han.
So if Firefly can get so much love and attention from just one season, Flash Forward deserves equal treatment. Find it and watch it. Let me know if you think I led you wrong.
But my bottom line judgment is: THIS television show is what speculative fiction is and should be: a “What If?” tale that challenges you, teaches you, and still lets you teach yourself. I can’t imagine watching Flash Forward without growing as a person. And it is also entertaining. What more could you ask?