The mystery at the heart of Manifest forces cast and viewers to struggle with the unimaginable. Creator Jeff Rake had to not only set up the mystery, but foresee its ultimate end.
Craig Blankenhorn/NBC/Warner Bros.
Craig Blankenhorn/NBC/Warner Bros.
Barbara Nitke/NBC/Warner Bros.
Melissa Roxburgh is emoting on the set of Manifest, NBC's new hit drama.
Her character, Michaela Stone, is having a tough conversation with her former fiancé, Jared, who is now married to her best friend, Lourdes. J. R. Ramirez plays Jared.
They talk about their relationship, which has, somehow, become even more fraught than it used to be. That's because Michaela disappeared for five-and-a-half years, along with her brother, Ben, his son, Cal, and a planeload of other people flying from Jamaica to New York. But the passengers of Montego Air Flight 828 never knew that they'd disappeared.
In case you couldn't tell, everything is just really, really complicated.
The scene ends and Roxburgh walks off camera. Then she returns, shakes her whole body and lets loose with something like a primal scream, just to get the heaviness of the scene out of her system. She and Ramirez both laugh, set up and go again.
What would you do? How would you react if you got on a plane for a three-hour flight and discovered upon arrival that five-and-a-half years had inexplicably passed — and the people in your life had moved on without you?
Or, what would you do if you were one of those who had moved on? If you thought you'd lost your fiancé, husband or son? What if you'd fallen apart and then put yourself back together again and eventually gone on living — only to wake up one day and find those people back again, safe and sound and not a day older?
Seriously, what would you do? Because if you think you know, think again. Even the people playing the roles can't imagine it. In fact, unimaginable is a word commonly heard on the set.
"The circumstances are so unimaginable, I literally don't know what I would do if I were in this guy's shoes," Ramirez says. "At the end of the day, we're all trying to live in this truth where it's really nobody's fault. Jared moved on, as any person would."
Luna Blaise plays Olive, who is Michaela's niece, Ben's daughter and Cal's twin sister. She is suddenly five-and-a-half years older than her twin. The 17-year-old actress calls it, "Surreal. Unimaginable. I try to play it real, imagining what I would do if my family disappeared, and I can't process it."
"I struggled a lot with this, because there's simply no frame of reference," says Athena Karkanis, who plays Ben's wife, Grace, and mom to Olive and Cal.
"I had to distill it down to feelings. There's loss, there's redemption, there's the joy of being reunited — all the simple things that we can relate to. It's the only way to make it work for me, to make it as real as possible. To find the truth in those moments."
"I don't want to say that Michaela is a mess, but she's kind of a mess," Roxburgh admits, relaxing later in her dressing room. "She's looking in all directions and wants to catch up with everything and put her life back together. There are no easy answers. For me, it's a real challenge."
Parveen Kaur, who plays passenger Dr. Saanvi Bahl, takes a different approach, saying with a laugh, "The idea of not knowing where our characters or storylines are going is not far off from being an actor in the real world. We don't know what's going to happen next, where we're going to be in a couple years, what our work is going to be like.
"There are real parallels between the two, and that helps me sort it out. But the act of not knowing? It's really exciting."
Manifest combines the science-fiction aspect of shows like Lost and The 4400 with the family drama of a current NBC hit, This Is Us. It takes the enigma of a supernatural event and grounds it through a single family and the people around it. The season's most fascinating new mystery may seem like an opportunistic modern hybrid, but in fact, it's taken more than a decade to make it to air.
"It's a cliché when people say it, but it's true: this show was in the works for 11 years," says creator, writer, executive producer and showrunner Jeff Rake, sitting in his office at Silvercup Studios in Queens, New York.
"Actually, closer to 12 now. I was an unemployed TV writer on a family trip with my wife and four young kids, driving from L.A. to the Grand Canyon. There is so much built up around a family vacation, with the expectations, the planning, the coordinating, everything….
"It was all swirling around in my brain, thinking of the importance of family, togetherness, getting away from the normal, and all those themes came to a head. It hit me like a ton of bricks: what if some extraordinary event separated a family? I came down to two planes: one landing on time, the other landing years later."
He wrote the pilot and pitched it around town, but a dozen years ago, there was already a huge show on the air featuring a planeload of passengers who had disappeared, and no one was looking for another Lost.
So Rake set it aside and went back to work on series like Franklin & Bash, Beauty and the Beast and The Tomorrow People before he created another NBC drama, The Mysteries of Laura. That lasted two seasons until it was canceled in 2016. Suddenly back in the development cycle, Rake decided to bring his big idea to Warner Bros. Television, where he has a deal.
They loved it, and soon he was pitching it around town again. This time, NBC bit, and just like that, the script that had sat in a drawer for years was one of the Peacock's hottest new shows.
"Look, I know we're not the first to do this," Rake says. "There are other shows where protagonists leave and come back. This is a repackaging of an idea, a reinventing of the wheel, but that's storytelling. There's a cool premise to this one: the sci-fi, and the emotional power of reuniting this family.
"And we've all been in this situation, buckling in on a plane and hoping we get where we're going in one piece. So I think this taps into some people's fears and dark wish fulfillment. What if?"
That cool premise has produced solid overall numbers, especially in delayed viewing, which tends to mean lots of younger fans. The network has extended its original 13-episode order to a total of 16 for the season, with new episodes airing through February 18. (Viewers who haven't yet jumped in can catch up at NBC.com, Hulu or Amazon.)
"We're always looking for 'big ideas' that are higher-concept ideas, but they're surprisingly hard to come by. And when you do come across them, they're difficult to sustain," says Lisa Katz, co-president of scripted programming for NBC Entertainment. "But Jeff had such a clear vision of not only the pilot, but the series as a whole, and it felt like something that could be on the air for a long time.
"This show is so ambitious in the storytelling, and Jeff and the writers have done such a great job balancing all the elements," she says. "With the big ideas and serialized storytelling, too many episodes feels like you're stretching it out. For us, given the kind of storytelling this show is doing, we felt a slightly shorter order of 16 would be a good fit."
"As a creator, you're constantly afraid you'll encounter some resistance as far as your ultimate vision," says Rake, whose fellow executive producers are Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke, Jackie Levine and Len Goldstein.
"I'm constantly in a state of exhilaration and fear, but the fact that I've been able to get everyone on board with my season-one game plan meant that we were all on the same page. Have there been bumps along the way? Of course. But this is collaborative, and I'm only on the air by the good graces of Warner Bros. and NBC, so my stewardship of this one hour of TV every week is a big responsibility, and I take it very seriously."
Actor Josh Dallas stands outside the set of the house where his character, Ben, has returned to live with wife Grace and twins Olive and Cal. It's the first day of shooting episode 11 and the last day of episode t10, and he's preparing to head inside for a confrontation with his estranged family and the man who stepped in while he was gone.
Before his arrival, Olive, Grace and Danny (the ex-boyfriend, played by Daniel Sunjata) had gotten into it. Olive called Danny because she was worried about her mom. After all, Danny has been a father figure, and just because her real dad is back doesn't mean Olive can forget about Danny.
Meanwhile, Ben is trying to hold on to his family. He's dealing with the notion that his wife has been in a serious relationship with another man. He's also desperately trying to connect with his now-teenage daughter, all the while seeking the truth about what happened on that plane.
Outside the front door, Dallas rolls his shoulders and then runs inside on cue. The confrontation happens. Voices are raised and tears are shed. Someone calls "Cut!" and Dallas comes back outside, standing in the darkness of the set. He rolls his shoulders again and prepares to go back in. He loves this.
It's not often an actor gets to spend seven years on a show, see it end on its own terms and then dive right into another one, but that's Josh Dallas for you. After being Prince Charming for more than 130 episodes of ABC's Once Upon a Time, he's now at the center of the mystery on Manifest.
The man who jokingly told Rake, "I only do hits," has gone from fantasy to science fiction. That's not a coincidence.
"It's what I'm attracted to," Dallas says in his dressing room, right before going gearing up to charge into that fake house. "I'm attracted to big ideas and big storytelling that's grounded in something real. I always have been.
"Once was like that, and Manifest is definitely like that. There's the mystery of what happened, but it's grounded in the story of these people. It's about the questions you ask about what would you do, and things like infidelity without moral culpability."
But is it actually infidelity if the partner was presumed dead? Did anyone do anything wrong? It's these kinds of bake-your-noodle questions that force the characters to consider things they never thought they'd have to consider.
Like, as Dallas says of Ben, "Being able to accept this man who essentially replaced him." It's doing the same for viewers, many of whom are furious at Ramirez's Jared because he not only didn't wait for Michaela to return, he married her best friend.
"Every character I've ever played has been extremely likable," Ramirez says with a laugh. "Now, all of a sudden, women are hating on this guy for moving on. I actually love it. The fact that there are so many people on either side of it is a testament to what we're doing here."
It's also part of the show's appeal. Remember that question above: what would you do? It has people talking. And the way Rake and the writing staff are telling the story not only has viewers guessing, it's got the actors wondering, too. But no one wants to peek ahead.
"I know nothing beyond what we're shooting," Dallas says. "I don't want to know anything. Of course I want to know, but it's better for me if I don't." Karkanis, Roxburgh, Ramirez and Blaise all say much the same thing. Even 11-year-old Jack Messina, who plays Ben's son, says, "I want to know, but not know at the same time."
Whereas Lost was criticized for not knowing where it was going and for a dissatisfying conclusion, Manifest has a very specific plan and endgame. For Rake, that was a key part of selling the show.
"In a world where shows try to emulate these concepts of mysteries, most of them come and go. Just because an idea is sexy, doesn't mean it will sustain," he says. "I felt that, if I was going to pitch one of these shows, I needed a road map that would take me all the way to a series finale, years down the line."
That map, in his mind, lasts six seasons, and so far, everything is exactly according to plan. He's got the hottest mystery of the season, and he's intent on keeping it that way.
"We are," he says with a smile, "absolutely where we want to be."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2019