On TV: FlashForward

Movieline Score: 7

Like a drunken, philosophical freshman at Chico State University, ABC's FlashForward wonders what would happen if everyone on Earth blacked out at the same time. The dystopian series premieres tonight, and if you can handle the cluttered melodrama that comes standard with a dark, sci-fi pilot, FlashForward may rejuvenate your ninth-grade crushes on Joseph Fiennes and Aldous Huxley.

Based on Canadian science-fiction author Robert J. Sawyer's award-winning 1999 novel, FlashForward begins with a day where everyone on Earth blacks out and simultaneously experiences, for two minutes and seventeen seconds, a glimpse of his or her life six months in the future. Those who haven't died in the airplane crashes or car accidents caused by the momentary loss of human control envision everything from life-affirming euphoria to seedy affairs, and our main protagonist, FBI agent Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes), visualizes his office's bulletin board filled with cryptic clues. As Mark tries to recall all of his flashforward, he consults with other characters whose visions sometime indicate they have no future (like Demetri Noh, played by John Cho).

The premiere episode will inevitably draw comparisons to Lost's landmark beginning, what with its diverse cast, supernatural underpinnings, and first-act disaster. In that regard, FlashForward doesn't quite measure up -- the cast seems less inspired, the conceit is less compelling, and the the overcast cinematography is more fit for, say, a decade-old music video by Vertical Horizon. But the pilot sets up a few interesting plot strands that leave the viewer pondering where this idea can reach, and that alone is worth a second glance. Is Demetri's death forthcoming, or is he simply unconscious or blindfolded during his flashforward? Is Mark's family in danger, as indicated by his young daughter's flashforward that "there are no more good days"? Is anyone withholding the true nature of his or her vision?

While Fiennes looks chiseled, well-trimmed, and crush-worthy as the scrappy hero, his acting -- more than anyone else's -- fails to rise to the level of FlashForward's extraordinary circumstances, and that's unfortunate, considering how much he deserves to redeem that missed Shakespeare in Love Oscar nomination. His every realization is stifled by hollow line delivery and a detached, bored stare. No one ever wants to aptly compare Joseph Fiennes to Audrina Patridge, and thus far I resist. Thus far.

Cho, meanwhile, is alert and magnetic, and Alex Kingston's post-ER return to primetime feels refreshing already. As new characters enter the picture (like Gabrielle Union's character Zoey, who will play Demetri's girlfriend in a few weeks), one hopes that the rising tension and intrigue of the show mitigates Fiennes's stiffness. While he investigates the quasi-brave new world of FlashForward, the rest of us must face the reality that sometimes a fun, labyrinthine plot device is worth suffering through some uninspired characters. The real worry is how long we can last.