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Review: Hope takes flight in NBC's 'Manifest,' but it's a bumpy ride

Review: Hope takes flight in NBC's 'Manifest,' but it's a bumpy ride
In "Manifest," a lost commercial flight touches down half a decade after its scheduled arrival time. Human meddling or divine intervention? The NBC series stars Josh Dallas as Ben Stone and Jack Messina as his son, Cal. (NBC / Craig Blankenhorn / Warner Bros)

Redemption and second chances are born of a spooky aviation mystery in NBC’s “Manifest” when a flight from Jamaica to New York goes missing somewhere over the Atlantic and then inexplicably touches down at its destination 5½ years later — plane, crew and passengers intact.

Authorities are flummoxed by the return of Montego Air Flight 828, and so are the 191 souls aboard when they learn it’s 2018. No wonder their Obama-era BlackBerrys won’t work.

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The flight was uneventful, they later tell suspicious FBI agents, except for a brief, violent bout of turbulence due to a “sudden weather surge” undetectable by radar. Cue the ominous music.…

The hour-long pilot episode, which premieres Monday, initially captivates with “Lost”-like puzzles: Where were they all that time? Why have none of them aged? And the bumpy flight scene is indeed terrifying (firsthand advice: don’t watch on a plane).

But once on the ground, rote themes of redemption and faith dilute an otherwise intriguing supernatural occurrence, and leave viewers with another puzzle to solve: why “Manifest’s” characters don’t seem all that interested in figuring out what the heck happened.

Instead passengers Michaela Stone (Melissa Roxburgh), her brother Ben (Josh Dallas) and their loved ones spend a lot of time talking about righting wrongs and fixing their lives. “The universe just gave all of us a do-over,” marvels Ben’s wife, Grace (Athena Karkanis), while the biggest mystery in the history of mankind looms small in the background.

More interesting is the plight of Ben and Grace’s young son Cal (Jack Messina), who was also on the flight. He has advanced childhood leukemia; when they left Jamaica, he had only six months to live. His cancer did not progress during the half-decade time lapse, but effective treatments for the disease did. Now Cal has a shot at beating the disease.

Parveen Kaur as Saanvi Bahl in NBC's "Manifest."
Parveen Kaur as Saanvi Bahl in NBC's "Manifest." (Virginia Sherwood / NBC/Warner Brothers)

Perhaps not so coincidentally, the graduate student and medical researcher behind the medical breakthrough, Saanvi (Parveen Kaur), was also on the plane and returns to find her work has manifested into a miracle cure. Did their disappearance serve a higher purpose and does their new lease on life come with the increased responsibility of saving others?

NYPD cop Michaela is starting to think so, even though her return from the abyss has been less hopeful than her brother’s or Saanvi’s. Her fiancé, Det. Jared Vasquez (J.R. Ramirez), married her best friend in her absence, and now she has no love, no job, no apartment. But she’s gained a sixth sense that’s geared toward protecting others from harm and worse, and she’s beginning to think it’s coming from a higher power.

“Manifest,” which comes from executive producer and Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke, Jeff Rake and Jackie Levine, has all the right ingredients to develop into a sci-fi thriller or perhaps a divine-intervention drama.

Religious themes pop in and out of “Manifest.” Minutes into the pilot, Bible scripture Romans 8:28 is recited by Michaela’s mother as they wait for their flight to board: “All things work together for good.”

The number 828, like Hurley’s winning lottery number in “Lost,” becomes a recurring theme.

It’s one of many bread crumbs that point toward a potentially addictive series if “Manifest” allows its gripping supernatural narrative to rise above its characters’ less interesting personal dramas.

The series also offers a story of hope that inevitably echoes the real-life disappearance of Malaysian Air flight 370 four years ago. And who couldn’t use a miracle right about now?

Whether it’s magic at 35,000 feet or the beginnings of a biblical prophecy about “those who are called,” it’s worth getting past “Manifest’s” bumpy landing to see if the series truly takes off.

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