Television

What Is Manifest, the QAnon-ish Conspiracy Show That Has Netflix Viewers Obsessed?

The canceled NBC series has found a surprising afterlife on streaming.

A woman bleeds from her eyes.
The author, after watching Manifest. NBC

Manifest, the NBC supernatural mystery that was canceled earlier this month after three seasons, has not been picked up by Netflix, even though it’s been at the top of the service’s Top 10 for more than a week. There will be no fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons—supposedly already plotted out by Manifest’s creator, Jeff Rake—to explain why a plane flying from Jamaica to New York City vanished in 2013 and reappeared in 2018, with its unaged passengers gifted with mysterious new psychic powers they dub “callings.”

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What is this show, which premiered with high ratings that steadily fell as time went on? And why do Netflix watchers like it so much, even if Netflix money people do not? Redditors debating dropping the show partway through the first season complained about the mixed-genre nature of the show, calling it a bait and switch: “I was hoping for something intriguing like Lost but wound up getting cornball prime time soap that thinks it’s a procedural about a supernatural mystery.” But I think this oddness is actually why I found myself binging a bunch of Manifest this past week, just as, in real time, we found out the mystery would end prematurely in Season 3.

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The show’s main characters—the Stone family, half of whom were passengers on Flight 828—are aggressively bland. Ben Stone (Josh Dallas) is a boringly beautiful white dad who loves his family and will do anything to protect them. He’s the equivalent of Lost’s Jack, in that he becomes the passengers’ de facto leader, as he tries to solve the mystery of their disappearance and reappearance, while keeping them safe from the forces that put them in danger, but without any of Jack’s dark edge. He is supposed to be some kind of a numbers guy—he figures out how to save his wife’s business, which is in peril after the insurance company asks for his life insurance payout back, with only a couple of hours of Big Brain Ben thoughts—but Dallas is just a little bit too slight and uncompelling for me to believe that anyone would follow him into the abyss. Ben’s sister Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh) is a boringly beautiful white NYPD detective, who uses (and sometimes abuses) all of her cop powers to investigate the central mystery. I liked her boyfriend, Jared (J.R. Ramirez), until the show made him into Jealous, Controlling Cop Ex, when the inevitable love triangle developed.

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Manifest premiered in 2018, long before the existence of QAnon began to register on any non-involved person’s radar. But the odd qualities of this show go far to explain why that sprawling conspiracy theory jibed with so many people (formerly) in the mainstream. In Manifest’s story, as in the Q world, we’ve got a group of normal, everyday people who start experiencing “callings,” sent by an apparent higher power. (The first episode even starts with Michaela and Ben following a calling to free a pair of kidnapped girls from captivity, before they can be trafficked—classic Q- and Q-adjacent fantasy!) These callings alienate the passengers from others, but they must stay true to the mystery despite their families’ resistance, and the world’s doubt. Shadowy agents hidden in the ranks of the government are helping them along, while others are working against them.

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There’s also spirituality—sometimes overtly Christian spirituality—all over the place. Michaela’s and Ben’s mom’s favorite Bible verse—Romans 8:28 (get it? 828, like the plane)—is a motivating force in the plot. The verse promises that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” This is straight-up Q: the idea that there are some people out there who are “on the manifest,” and if they align themselves with “his purpose,” they will prevail. (Or, perhaps—double meaning!—they will “manifest” his will.) I haven’t arrived at the third season yet—Netflix only has two—but apparently, it involves the appearance of a piece of Noah’s Ark, adding to the explicit Christianity of it all.

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In this soup of bland network family drama and conspiracy plot, mad bits constantly bob to the surface. It may have begun as “a generic, joyless cop show,” but as you watch on, its flatness is interrupted increasingly often by bizarre interludes. A man who was drowned and then resurrected is about to go on national television to reveal that the passengers are having callings, but starts spewing epic amounts of water before dropping dead. Another man—Zeke (Matt Long), the other side of the Michaela–Jared love triangle, and, honestly, a cutie—spends several episodes with his flesh slowly deteriorating due to frostbite. A group of catatonic passengers, linked by [insert the show’s neuroscience mumbo-jumbo here], jerk simultaneously, controlled from afar by electrical impulses. A passenger convinced a baby is her guardian angel sets a room on fire while testing to see if the baby will save her. (She gets interrupted by the baby’s meddling mom before she can prove her theory.)

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As for Ben’s teenage son Cal (Jack Messina) constantly walks on the razor edge between heartbreaking and creepy. This character is a driving force in the show, because when he takes off on Flight 828 he has incurable cancer, and when he lands, research (done by a doctor who was also on the flight!) has advanced to the point that he can be treated. Also, his “callings” are stronger than the others’. With his big eyes and solemn demeanor, Cal is supposed to tug at the heartstrings, but there’s something ineradicably uncanny about him. He’s a twin, and when he and his sister Olive are reunited after Flight 828 lands, she has gone through puberty, while he’s remained a little shrimp. It’s supposed to be heartwarming to see them together again, but it just gives me the deep and profound creeps. It doesn’t help that Cal, of course, is in the habit of making drawings that come true. And he’s always running away, led by one calling or another, leaving his poor mom staring at open windows, curtains wafting. This tween worries about other kids calling him a freak—but maybe, just suppose, he is one?

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This whole thing sounds like a mess, and it is—or, I guess, it was. But there was something about its unevenness that I found appealing. As Dustin Rowles writes for UpRoxx, explaining why he continued to watch the show, even though it’s not objectively good: “It is absolutely bonkers, and yet every character on the show confronts its ridiculous plot turns with complete dead-faced seriousness.” Manifest has a mix of tones you don’t find anywhere else.

Would all of its unevenness and loose ends have come together in the show’s last seasons? Netflix, which has paid for final seasons of canceled network shows like Designated Survivor in order to be able to give viewers a definitive ending, chose in this case not to give us the satisfaction. Like Q true believers who saw all their predictions fizzle into nothing as 2020 moved into 2021, we’re left without a resolution. For this odd show, it’s a fitting end.

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