If you’re already afraid of boarding an airplane, then Netflix’s “Manifest” might not be for you. But the show, running at number five in the United States on Netflix Wednesday, is otherwise a surprisingly refreshing product.
Most movies, TV shows, and even advertisements today fail spectacularly in the healthy-family department, even when their plots, acting, and effects are otherwise good. That’s why “Manifest” is startlingly good at keeping your interest. Instead of being painful to watch, the family at the center of the plot is a pretty likable example of imperfect people sacrificing and striving to put each other first.
The Stone family — brother-sister duo Ben (Josh Dallas) and Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh) along with Ben’s wife Grace and twin children Cal and Olive — is separated when Ben, Michaela, and Cal take a voucher for a different flight home from the family vacation in Jamaica. Through some trick of science, magic, or divine intervention, their plane lands five years into the future, returning to loved ones who spend the last half-decade mourning their presumed deaths.
What follows is an attempt to rebuild lives and relationships after what was a matter of hours to the passengers and five years to their friends and families. Meanwhile, the passengers try to figure out what happened in the air, working at times with and at times against a government effort to find answers too.
Refreshing Examples of Family Devotion
“Manifest” is at its strongest when it leans into the relationships between members of the Stone family. Ben becomes the default leader of the effort to help other passengers and figure out the cause of the plane’s time warp, acting out of care for his family in a way that’s much closer to a traditional model of a caring, take-action father than it is to the frail caricatures of clueless, wimpy men popular in Hollywood today.
His marriage with Grace is also impressive, at least for Hollywood (and considering the challenges of, you know, getting separated by a time warp). When Ben returns after what was five years of Grace’s lifetime, he finds that she’s begun a relationship with another man, attempting to give her remaining daughter a father figure. Rejecting suggestions to stay with her new beau, Grace breaks it off and restores her marriage with her long-lost husband, expressing recognition that the commitment between husband and wife is a serious and permanent thing.
With a few hiccups, the couple’s navigation of the predictable bumps from their five-year gap is mostly commendable, balancing their sometimes-stubborn humanity with their determination to work things out. After a few instances of miscommunication and disagreement, Ben and Grace reiterate their resolve to be on the same team, no matter how daunting the challenges of cracking the plane’s mystery are.
Instead of the whining, entitled brats that usually pass as children in Hollywood, Cal and Olive are family team players, too. The challenges of reintegrating the family relationships are present, but they don’t overpower each family member’s desire to help and protect each other, even at personal cost.
While Cal and Olive both have rebellious moments, they still show love and respect for their parents. And when Grace and Ben become pregnant again and complications lead to risking either Grace’s life or the baby’s, Grace willingly puts her life on the line to protect her daughter.
“Manifest’s” writers include marriage in Michaela’s storyline too — an inclusion that shouldn’t be remarkable, but that’s notable in an industry that doesn’t usually take the time or effort to turn its characters’ ambiguous relationships into marriage. Although Michaela makes a serious and inexcusable mistake when she first returns (cheating with her now-married former fiancé), she immediately recognizes her wrong and refuses to continue that path.
Instead, she enters a loving and sacrificial marriage with another character, Zeke. Furthermore, when the mother of Michaela’s childhood friend is forced to enter a nursing home with dementia, Michaela and Zeke lovingly take her under their care. (The end of season three hinted at coming tension between the newlyweds and old fiancé Jared, however, so we can hope “Manifest” continues its acknowledgment of marital gravity and doesn’t ruin it.)
It’s also worth alerting family audiences that there are supernatural and even religious elements in the show. A piece of Noah’s Ark makes an appearance in season three with unambiguous parallels between the biblical account and the passengers’ situation. Romans 8:28 is cryptically cited, and one of the passengers starts an obviously phony “church” based on the airplane’s return.
Passengers also have quasi-religious visions or “callings” that lead them to unravel pieces of their flight’s mystery. The callings — and their low-budget special effects — aren’t the strongest element of “Manifest,” but they don’t ruin the story either.
We don’t know where these elements will lead in season four, but the theologically mature viewer can take the supernatural elements of seasons one through three with a grain of salt. I don’t expect Netflix to present a coherent version of the Christian gospel, and “Manifest’s” vanilla message about the importance of faith is true if surface-level. The all-important question, of course, is where that faith is placed — in princes and the idols of self or in the God of the Gospels.
“Manifest” certainly isn’t a Christian show, but in a post-Enlightenment age where relativist humanism reigns supreme, its reminder that a higher power exists is relevant. Its treatment of the supernatural could be a good topic for discussion with mature kids, and the TV-14 show is comparatively light on mature content (there is a brief side plot involving one character’s bisexual fling).
Maybe it’s a sign of the times that basic family values in “Manifest” impressed me. Nonetheless, it’s the Stones’ relatable daily battles to look out for each other, make sacrifices, and recognize their family as both something to be protected and a source of strength, that make “Manifest” worth watching.
The fourth and final season is expected in the spring of 2022, but season three ended on a massive cliffhanger with the suggestion of Grace’s death. How the Stones handles that (or other higher-than-ever stakes) in the final season will make or break what kind of example they set of family love.