More Hugo love for Robert Sawyer, this time in the form of a television series based on one of his novels (he also scripted a later episode). I actually watched this entire series; I just caught up with the finale on my DVR, which is why I waited until now to review it.
The premise is great. One day, everyone in the world passes out at the same instant and has a vision of two minutes of April 29, 2010, several months in the future. When people awaken, there is massive devastation from the various crashes that occurred when everyone passed out. There's also the emotional shock of seeing your future. Some people see happy reunions or (in the case of a terminal cancer patient, for instance) are happy simply to see themselves alive. Others see their marriages ruined. Most disturbing of all are the people who experience no vision at all, suggesting that they won't be alive when April 29 rolls around.
The show is at its best when it examines the philosophical, psychological, and sociological responses to this mass glimpse at destiny. It's able to look at questions of free will, and it does come up with some interesting ideas - like a wiki that tries to compile people's visions into a coherent picture of April 29 (I assume that this is straight out of the novel, since it feels very Robert Sawyerish, from what little I know about his work). The show also had a promising pair of co-creators in David Goyer (who, with Christopher Nolan, quite successfully rebooted the Batman films) and Brannon Braga (who wrote some very good time travel episodes for Star Trek, including a Hugo-winning episode of The Next Generation). And, the first episode was very promising. It was good enough for me to commit to watching the entire first season, despite its ups and (mostly) downs. And, I did suggest the pilot as a Hugo nominee, so I was not unhappy to see it on the list.
The show has issues though, and I was not unhappy to see it cancelled either. I doubt I would have watched the second season if it had made it. The first problem is in the nature of the show itself. It requires a lot of intricate plotting to get a set of characters to a predestined position and still make things interesting. You know that most of the characters will end up in a situation similar to the one from their vision, otherwise, what's the point. Getting them there won't be easy though. The main character, recovering alcoholic and FBI agent Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes - remember him?) saw himself drinking again while his office is attacked. Getting him to that point in the last couple of episodes required some laughable contrivances. Another pair of characters, Mark's babysitter and one of his wife's coworkers, have a meandering plotline that goes absolutely nowhere and gets suddenly dropped in the final episode. It's clear that the writers had a hard time playing out some of the visions, but that's not really an issue here in the pilot.
What is an issue in the pilot is the show's cheesy action tropes. This is American network television, so we can't just do a thoughtful show about destiny. Nope, Mark and his fellow FBI-agents have the kind of explosion-filled, shoot-em-up lives that only television FBI agents can have. Even here in the pilot, Mark and his partner (John Cho, aka Harold, aka Sulu), have their "blackouts" in the middle of chasing an SUV full of terrorists. I don't mind action, but the show tends to go over-the-top. There are scenes of people running from explosions in slow-motion. I'm not kidding. And, the violence is all very pointless. I think every lead Mark and his team ever follows turns out to be a red herring (not to mention they all come from his vision of the investigation, which is a causal loop). Nor do we ever learn anything about the evil conspiracy that caused the blackout, which feels more like writerly haplessness than anything else (though the best acting in the show comes from the character actors who play cogs in the conspiracy, like Ricky Jay and Michael Massee. Joseph Fiennes...not so much).
So, as often happens in these shows, the mysteries are better than the answers. The pilot has a great twist at the end. I won't give it away, but I will say that that the payoff is lame. I'd recommend watching the pilot, and just leaving the series there. Most of what you'll imagine to explain the turns that bring the characters to their futures, or to explain the cause of the odd phenomenon, will be at least as good as what the show-runners eventually gave us.