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'FlashForward' ABC's latest jigsaw puzzle

Chuck Barney
Contra Costa Times (MCT)

Perhaps you've heard by now: Next winter, ABC's "Lost" will begin airing its final episodes, bringing to a crescendo six seasons of mind-blowing, spellbinding, time-tripping shenanigans.

It will be the end of an era, but maybe not the end of ambitious, high-concept network television. Already revving its engines is "FlashForward," a suspenseful new ABC drama that wants to plow into your skull and become prime time's next great jigsaw puzzle.

Its premise is undeniably intriguing: One day the world is spinning along, just like normal, when suddenly all of humanity loses consciousness for exactly two minutes and 17 seconds. Death and destruction ensue.

When the smoke finally clears, it becomes apparent that, during the blackout, the survivors experienced brief visions of their lives six months into the future. Some of these visions are hopeful, some harrowing.

As with "Lost," the questions immediately abound. Who caused the blackout and why? Are the flash-forward scenarios for real? And, if so, are they a done deal, or can they be changed? It's all the more ominous, considering the answers have implications ranging far beyond a jacked-up little island.

At its core, "FlashForward" is a very different show from "Lost." But it blatantly borrows from the "Lost" bible with the way it plays with time and deftly adds layers of suspense as it goes (the ending to Thursday night's pilot contains a stunning twist). It also borrows from the "Lost" cast as Dominic Monaghan (Charlie) and Sonya Walger (Penny) resurface here.

Even the opening sequence of "FlashForward" is somewhat reminiscent of the extraordinary "Lost" pilot. In a tight close-up, the camera focuses on a lone man as he awakens after a horrible crash. Then, as he gets his bearings, the camera pulls back to reveal the mass chaos in which he's engulfed. Only this time we're on an LA freeway, not a tropical beach.

The man is FBI agent Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes). Just before the time lapse, he and his partner, Demetri Noh (John Cho), were involved in a high-speed car chase. Their immediate assumption is that someone pulled off a 9/11-like terrorist attack, but when they realize that planes have crashed around the world and that, in Paris, the Eiffel Tower is burning, it becomes obvious that this is much bigger — and scarier — than what they could have imagined.

And what about those strange premonitions? Mark sees an armed assailant coming to hunt him down at night. His wife, Dr. Olivia Benford (Walger), sees herself having an affair. Meanwhile, a buddy of Mark's sees that her daughter, a soldier, is alive — long after being given up for dead in Afghanistan. And a colleague of Olivia's who had considered suicide before the blackout now sees he has reason to live.

Fiennes and Walger make for an engaging couple. You immediately bond with them. And by focusing on these deeply personal stories, "FlashForward" avoids the pitfall of tethering itself too tightly to its sci-fi dynamics at the expense of character development.

That said, there is some cause for concern. In recent years, we've been presented with several ambitious and complex pilots only to watch them fail to maintain their magic and/or hold their ratings. ABC itself has been down this road before (See: "Nine").

So knowing all that, and knowing that "FlashForward" is anything but a veg-out hour, is it worth our investment? Well, I'm in for now, but I sure wish I could see six months into the future.

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