Netflix’s Most Absurd Sci-Fi Show Is Back With a Hugely Popular New Season
Long ago, I wrote about the head-scratching popularity of Manifest, an objectively not-great television show that is nonetheless compulsively watchable. Much to my chagrin, I still can’t quit Manifest, and the show itself is proving all too resilient. Like the cursed passengers at the heart of the supernatural plane drama, Manifest has been on a strange journey. The series ran on NBC for three seasons before cancelation, only to be resurrected by Netflix after those seasons grabbed huge viewing numbers on the streaming network. Netflix brought Manifest back for a final, two-part season, betting that audiences would continue to watch, and they appear to have won their wager. After a November 4th, 2022 bow, the first ten episodes of season 4 quickly shot to the coveted #1 most-watched spot on Netflix, with more than 57.1 million hours viewed.
I cannot in good conscience tell you to watch Manifest from the perspective of a media critic. On paper, the premise intrigues: what happened to the passengers on a plane that mysteriously disappeared for five years and then reappeared, its passengers unaged? Why are said passengers afflicted with weird visions when they finally make it back home? The production as a whole, however, leaves much to be desired. The same problems I noted about previous seasons—including wooden dialogue, baffling religiosity, laugh-out-loud plotting, and two-dimensional characters with two-dimensional motivations—are as present in the Netflix Manifest as they were in the NBC Manifest. Yet this new Manifest has managed to maintain its strangely compelling hold on the viewer, at least most of the time. The show excels at episodic cliffhangers and sudden twists, leaving you in a state of piqued interest behind your otherwise glassy eyes. You could use the remote and search for something else to watch, or you could just let Manifest keep playing. It’s the path of least resistance, and that’s alluring as a mystical Omega Sapphire that gives you godlike superpowers. Not everything has to be prestige TV.
Despite zoning out several times myself, I watched the ten episodes released from the fourth season over the course of two nights. And I know I’ll watch the ten concluding episodes whenever they arrive. (They are currently in production, so we likely won’t see them until spring or summer 2023.) Beyond those cliffhanger hooks, perhaps the true appeal of Manifest is that you can turn off your brain and watch a TV show with attractive people and strange supernatural goings-on and not have to think very hard about anything at all. And the actors seem very nice! If you’ve already put time into this thing, you’re now invested in the characters and in what’s actually going on with that damned plane, so it becomes a sort of sunk-cost fallacy. You might as well finish it. Manifest is a mental retreat from a world perpetually on fire, even if, yeah, the world is literally on fire in Manifest because it’s judgment day or the apocalypse or whatever.
Without further adieu, my somewhat unhinged stream of thought that unfurled as I watched the latest episodes.
***Major spoilers for season 4, part 1 of Manifest***
Hoo boy does season 4 make some choices. I enjoy actor Josh Dallas, who really tries his best, but. I didn’t think the crusading Ben Stone, a passenger determined to save the other passengers from their looming Death Date (this is a real thing), could become even more of an annoying character. I was wrong. Just kill his wife and steal his baby and watch what happens! Ben spends more than half this first-part season with a wild man beard like he’s Captain America gone off the grid, obsessed with finding little Eden to the detriment of all else. Damn the passengers! Damn his other, present kids! Damn their impending mutual Death Date!!! He’s obstinate to a fault and all but unwatchable. Also, not nearly enough screentime with crusading medical researcher Saanvi (Parveen Kaur), the character he’s most interesting to actually watch around.
Meanwhile, Ben’s winsome sister Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh) is given less to do while the bizarre love triangle of her, Jared (J.R. Ramirez), and Zeke (Matt Long) plays ever on through knowing glances. Zeke and Jared are the most solid characters on this show, so kudos to her for that. Wait, I take it back, Michaela’s former (cop) partner and Jared’s current flame Drea Makami (Ellen Tamaki) is also great and I really wish they could have resolved these interwoven relationships with a polyamorous quad all around.
I will admit that I was sad about what happened with Zeke. They got me with that one.
Okay, okay, our mouthy rascally antihero Eagan is also a pretty excellent character, but only because no one delivers lines quite like actor Ali Lopez-Sohaili. Eagan seems to recognize the silly television show that he’s on and never misses a moment to roast it in real time. I’m glad he’s around more this season. Give us more Eagan, give us all of the Eagan, give Lopex-Sohaili his own show about Eagan. I will also add that I enjoy Adrian because Jared Grimes delivers an excellent performance and makes him feel especially sympathetic.
Cal. Let’s talk about Cal. I don’t even know where to start, to be honest. The adult actor Ty Dornan does a good job of taking over a child’s role (Jack Messina played the part for three seasons and shows up a few times here in flashbacks). Dornan looks remarkably like said child, so kudos to the casting director. Cal goes from being 12 to 17 in the blink of an eye because of reasons. The whole thing feels really awkward, though, especially since I’m not clear if Cal is still supposed to have the brain of a 12-year-old in a 17-year-old’s body or if he somehow aged all those years in “the divine consciousness.” His whole “date” with Violet made me uncomfortable because all I could keep thinking was “um, this is a child???” Now that he’s been resurrected like an actual Christ and is set to square off against the satanic Angelina (she’s like a fallen angel, get it?? The name is ironic???), the frenzied religiosity of the show has taken on truly biblical proportions.
The overt Christian religiosity of Manifest really throws me for a loop. (This reddit post from 2021 argues, “Manifest is a religious show posing as science fiction.”) The series isn’t even pretending any longer, and yet despite the near-constant religious themes and references, it’s also a confusing hodgepodge, message-wise. The most overtly devout people we meet are probably Angelina and her parents, but Angelina is a deranged murderer and baby-stealer and her parents turn out to be serial killers! Okay. The show has never liked fanatics, so I guess it’s saying something by making these misguided uber-Christians downright evil, but everything else is pointing to a more saccharine sort of Christianity winning the day. As for Angelina herself, I really don’t know how to process her at all, except that I guess maybe it’s progressive to have a woman as the antichrist or whatever, and Holly Taylor deserves a raise for not laughing her way through Angelina’s dialogue.
Manifest attempts to mix in a lot of other cultures and systems of belief by its constant reassurance that “everything is connected”—our intrepid armchair researchers Olive (Luna Blaise) and TJ (Garrett Wareing) investigate many histories, mythologies, tarot cards, magic, Native American folklore, Freemasons, Egyptian Gods, Infinity Stones I mean Omega Sapphires, etc. etc.—but when it comes down to it, everything sure seems connected to Christian roots. I guess if it has to be this way, at least it’s an NPR-listening, Democrat-voting sort of Christianity—the show has positive depictions of queer couples and likes to mock people who spend their time getting radicalized in hateful Internet forums. But I’m not gonna lie, the discovery of “the divine consciousness” as the root of all things this season made me want to crawl under the coffee table. I almost gave up right then and there.
Trying to formulate coherent thoughts about Manifest is a losing battle. Take, for example, this summation from a recent Den of Geek article theorizing where we’re heading:
As Cal absorbed both the dragon scar without being struck by lightning and the omega sapphire it could mean that the dragon symbolizes how Cal is supposed to channel it in order to pass the trial all the passengers need to take part in to save the world.
If you were to say this sentence in polite company you would be politely escorted away from said company. Manifest makes no sense and yet is wildly simplified at the same time, which I suppose is a remarkable feat. This series is befuddling and often laughable, and yet. And yet. I just cannot lift that remote and click away. I can’t wait for the conclusion, where I can only imagine our passengers ascend back into the heavenly divine or else an actual deus ex machina descends from the sky to fix things, perhaps in the form of a talking airplane. See you then!
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]