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Fall TV 2009: 'FlashForward' looks for 'Lost'-size success

Joseph Fiennes and Dominic Monaghan headline the hot new ABC drama

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Flash Forward
8PM — ABC — New Drama — Debuts Sept. 24

Joseph Fiennes doesn’t quite know how to play FBI agent Mark Benford. Is he American or British? Is he trying to extract key information or simply observe? Is he about to fall to his death? Is he supposed to be…an egg or a rooster? Fiennes decides on the egg. ”As Eggbert Eggbottom the Third, I would like to egg-spress my desire for you to eat oatmeal this morning. Can I get a ‘cluck-cluck”’ says Fiennes, lending his real-life British accent to an egg Benford is dancing across a kitchen counter toward his young daughter, Charlie (Lennon Wynn). Then Fiennes, who’s spent most of his career parsing dialogue from Shakespeare and Marlowe, loses the thread and breaks character. He turns to director Bobby Roth for guidance: Is the ”cluck-cluck” bit still the egg talking? Or is it the nearby ceramic rooster chiming in? ”I’m really dim,” he tells Roth apologetically. ”I lived in the city.”

Yes, even a cozy family-breakfast scene — during which Eggbert, unfortunately, splats on the kitchen floor a few seconds later — is rife with complications on ABC’s sprawling new sci-fi drama FlashForward. And the genre-scrambling series already has a big enough challenge in its path: living up to its own hype. The promotion machine began five months ago when cryptic ”What did you see?” teasers starting popping up during Lost. And a calculated air of mystery surrounds the FlashForward pilot, which follows the chaotic repercussions after every human being on earth blacks out for two minutes and 17 seconds. Until recently, the pilot had been shown to critics only behind closed doors, and producers chose to screen just a portion of the episode to Comic-Con audiences (unlike ABC’s V, which ran in its entirety). Why the acute spoilerphobia? Because as Lost heads into its final season this winter, both geeks and ABC are searching for their next obsession — and the network is hoping FlashForward could be it. It doesn’t hurt that the cast features not one but two beloved Lost vets: Sonya Walger (that’s Penny to Losties) as Benford’s surgeon wife, Olivia, and Dominic Monaghan (RIP Charlie) as a genius named Simon. ”The intention was not to imitate Lost,” says ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson. ”But we’ve certainly been looking for that next hit, and I don’t think we’ve had as special an idea as this since then.”

The expectations might be high for FlashForward, but for Benford, the stakes are even higher: the fate of the entire human race. Not only did the blackout result in worldwide disasters — cars, planes, and helicopters don’t operate themselves, after all — but it soon emerges that everyone spent the downtime having lucid ”flash-forward” visions of what seem to be their own futures, specifically at 10 p.m. on April 29, 2010. Benford’s vision shows him working on the case of what exactly happened during the blackouts — a revelation that, in a meta twist, lands him the job of…working on the case. Despite the neuron-bending nature of the premise, the actors and producers refuse to embrace the sci-fi label. ”The only leap you have to make is the existence of the flash-forward,” executive producer David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight) says. ”If people can accept everything happening on Lost, they can accept this.” After all, Goyer adds, the show is far simpler than the 1999 novel on which it’s based. In Robert J. Sawyer’s book, the blackout results from a science experiment gone wrong and elicits visions 21 years into the future. ”In the book, everyone was a particle physicist, which seemed a little rarefied,” Goyer says. ”And if you have a vision that your life might be in danger, there’s a big difference between 21 years and six months, so I thought that needed to be collapsed.” (Still, Sawyer liked the stripped-down concept so much that he agreed to write an episode later in the season.)

Though Goyer and his wife, Jessika Borsiczky, developed their concept for the show pre-Lost, he and his writing partner Brannon Braga (24) didn’t finish the pilot script until last year — which was, perhaps, a blessing. Well aware of the pros and cons of shows centered on intricate mythologies, they ignited a network bidding war over the FlashForward script by working out story arcs for five full seasons. ”These high-concept shows can be fantastic,” McPherson says. ”But there are a lot of pitfalls, so the fact that they had done their homework made all the difference.” The network did its part by committing to the script by September 2008 (months ahead of the normal pilot season) and casting soon thereafter. Fiennes, who’s spent the years since his high-profile Oscar-movie roles concentrating mostly on theater, had both serious and sartorial reasons for taking the role of the recovering-alcoholic FBI agent at the series’ center. ”I get to wear jeans and carry a gun for once instead of those funny-looking outfits,” he says of switching from English period pieces to American prime time. ”TV’s a new area for me. There’s a lot of meat to dig into in terms of secrets and lies and gray areas and moral boundaries.”

John Cho (Star Trek, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle) was similarly lured into making the switch to the small screen when he read the part of Fiennes’ partner, Demetri Noh, a wisecracking young agent who’s engaged to be married — and who’s horrified when he doesn’t have a flash-forward like everyone else. (Could it be because he’ll be dead in six months?) ”I thought it would be fun to play the specific wrinkle that he was about to get married,” he says. ”Does he set [his fiancée] free? Does he instigate a breakup? It’s very cool stuff.” Walger’s character also has an upsetting vision: She sees herself with another man. ”People feel as if they actually experienced what they saw, so as far as Olivia’s concerned, she committed adultery,” explains Walger. ”That would be devastating to experience.”

As for Monaghan, the actor asked producers for a meeting after reading the pilot script, even though he didn’t see any parts that suited him. Fortunately, he was perfect for Simon, who doesn’t appear until episode 5 or 6. ”It’s important to me to play a character who’s completely different from Charlie,” Monaghan says. He doesn’t mind keeping Simon a total secret — ”it makes you feel like Jason Bourne” — though Goyer will reveal that Simon ”graduated college when he was 14, he’s from England, and his parents live in Toronto. Charlie was a boy, and Simon’s a man.”

Given the show’s cast, and its fun-with-timelines conceit, the producers of FlashForward understand the constant comparisons to Lost — though they have learned from some of the Island-bound series’ mistakes. For one thing, producers promise to get to the flash-forward date, April 29, by the end of the first season to answer the key question of whether the visions come true. (In other words, no frustrating So what’s in the damn hatch? finales here, folks.) The flash-forwards themselves, several of which the pilot depicts in pieces, will serve as their own unique plot device: ”The longest you see is Joseph’s, which is maybe 30 seconds,” Goyer says, hinting that we’ll see more of it throughout the season. ”So my question to the audience is: Is that the beginning, middle, or end of his flash-forward?” Other characters will see futures they want desperately to come true, or futures that are simply comic relief: ”There’s a person who [sees himself] doing a ‘We Are the World’-type song to benefit people after the blackout,” Goyer says. ”He’s this middling musican scraping by, but in his flash-forward he’s written the song of his generation. So it’s not all bleak.” Sure, tell that to Eggbert.