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How Manifest creator Jeff Rake learned lessons from Lost to create a new genre mystery series

Contributed by
Sep 24, 2018

It's been 14 years since Lost debuted and Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 crashed on a remote island, stranding its passengers. The series, which ran from 2004 to 2010, changed TV on multiple levels; arguably, it kicked off a new era of intense fan engagement and kept those fans engaged with its constantly evolving mysteries.

Television is a different landscape in 2018, but a lot of where we are stems from the lessons learned from Lost's run. To this day, you'll be hard-pressed to find any showrunner pitching a genre series to broadcast that doesn't cite Lost as a benchmark for how their show is kinda similar to it — but also very different.

A perfect example of this Lost phenomena is creator/showrunner Jeff Rake's upcoming NBC drama Manifest, which is as on the nose as a series can be in terms of drawing Lost parallels. Its pilot episode revolves around Montego Air Flight 828 and the 191 souls onboard. When everyone onboard arrives safely in New York, they've all experienced nothing out of the ordinary except for some turbulence. Yet when they return to their families and the world, everything and everyone has moved on without them. They've been missing for five years.

While Manifest features a diverse cast of characters, audiences mainly follow Michaela and Ben Stone (Melissa Roxburgh and Josh Dallas) through their disorientation and the connection they form with many of their fellow "survivors." Slowly, they realize they've come back different.

There's plenty in the show's spine that elicits familiar vibes. But Rake has been in the business long enough to have learned plenty from his experiences executive producing series as disparate as Cashmere Mafia to The Mysteries of Laura. He says Manifest is an idea born 10 years ago when Lost was in its fourth season, but the original pitch went nowhere.

It wasn't resurrected until the real-life story of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014 provided a "truth is stranger than fiction" gravitas to Rake's initial show concept. Even then, it still took three more years for NBC to pick up his pilot, and then bring it to series. Manifest premieres on September 24.

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Melissa Roxburgh as Michaela Stone, Josh Dallas as Ben Stone

SYFY WIRE sat down to talk with Rake about the risks of bringing a mythology series to broadcast and finding the right mix of genre and drama.

"I think what I've learned just from being a fan of serialized event mysteries, but also more broadly just being a fan of television drama, is that shows that sustain have great and compelling characters at their core,” Rake says.

Rake says he thinks the best television — whether it be a mystery like Lost or a family drama like This Is Us — is beloved because of the characters it gives us.

"When I set out to create this show, I knew that I had a tantalizing premise and then I set out to cast that premise with a core ensemble of complicated, appealing, and relatable characters," he says. "One of my proudest inventions is the fact that I've put siblings at the core of my show like This Is Us. The fact that I have an adult brother and sister at the core of my serialized event mystery allows me to have a window into multiple relationship stories, and to play multiple relationship triangles, while at the very center of the show create this partnership between this brother and sister."

Michaela (Roxburgh) is a cop and Ben (Dallas) is a mathematician and scientist. Together, they join forces to figure out what happened.

"We will peel the onion over the course of seasons, but that mystery is only one aspect of the show," Rake says.

While some genre series lean into their mythology wholeheartedly, Rake says his hybrid approach leads into the more mainstream-friendly stories that he hopes will appeal to even the most genre-phobic viewers.

"When you watch a prototypical episode of Manifest, you will find that about half of the episode plays like a relationship drama," Rake says. "They're grounded stories of what would happen to a marriage, or to a relationship between a father and a child if one of you had disappeared for five years and then come back out of nowhere into that relationship. And those stories will continue and twist and turn throughout the course of the series. And then there are closed-ended cases.”

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Michaela's career as a cop will allow her to investigate cases that have tangential connections to their flight, which Rake says is a more grounded approach to the mysteries.

"That's very, very important to me,” he emphasizes. "Because without a grounded relationship with your characters, the audience isn't going to invest no matter how tantalizing the concept is. So, at least in the initial batch of episodes, the audience is going to experience a closed-ended procedural story."

When Michaela goes back to work after being gone for five years, we discover in the pilot episode that she's come back with some inexplicable, seemingly supernatural abilities that begin impacting her police work. But that's just one facet. Other stories will revolve around not only Michaela and Ben but the other passengers, as well. Combining these drama-fueled relationships with the slow-burn mythology of the story is the kind of thing, Rake says, that allows for multiple seasons of a serialized mystery. Especially if you focus on the characters.

"We're gonna get a window into their personal lives and we're also going to get a window into the mystery of how what happened on the airplane is continuing to affect them or afflict them, if you will," Rake says. "I did that for several reasons. One is because I wanted to have an apparatus for people from different walks of life and for all of their lives to intersect in surprising ways.”

Rake says that also allows audiences to experience the series under their own lens. Citing the siblings as his own Mulder and Scully or Locke and Jack, he says how you see the world will play into your interpretation of how the story unfold.

"Michaela is a cop but what we learned in the pilot is that she's kind of a lapsed person of faith. We discover that faith was a huge aspect of her mother's life and her relationship with her mother," Rake says. "And very significantly, in the opening moments of the pilot, her mother alludes to her own religious faith and Michaela says, 'Mom, you know I don't believe in that anymore. How can I?' And when she asks that question, that teases up a mystery about Michaela's backstory that we will reveal over the course of the early episodes. Michaela, as a lapsed person of faith, ironically, becomes the believer in our series.”

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A core question of Manifest is whether the great mystery of this missing airplane can be answered by science, or whether it can only be answered by faith in some higher calling — or in something completely out of this world. Michaela becomes the believer while Ben, the scientist, is the skeptic.

"Ben is sort of the Richard Dreyfuss character in Close Encounters as he is trying to bring some logic to what's going on here," Rake says. "He will be figuring out the rules and finding the patterns over the course of the episodes and over the course of seasons. There will be an architecture to all of this and we'll come together to understand... why certain passengers are experiencing callings, and why certain passengers are not. Why are Ben and Michaela more at the center of this than the others? There's kind of a rhyme and reason to all of this."

Manifest airs Mondays on NBC at 10/9 central.

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