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‘FlashForward’ Tests The Unknown

BURBANK, Calif. - The FBI agent and his wife's apparent future lover just miss crossing paths in the hospital hallway. They don't meet, but what if they had?

Would it block his wife's path to infidelity? Or would it guarantee it?

The underlying question - can you change your future? - is at the heart of ABC's FlashForward (Sept. 24, 8 ET/PT), among the most-awaited new fall TV series, and one that some are calling the next Lost.

The premise centers on a two-minute, 17-second blackout that strikes the world's population, followed by crashes, deaths and other disasters that result from the global unconsciousness. During the blackout, almost everyone has a vision - a flash-forward - six months ahead, to April 29, 2010. 10 p.m. PT, to be exact. Some are welcome, and some, including the wife's vision of the lover, are not.

The task is to find out what happened and if the flash-forward prophecies will, or must, come to pass.

"We are the only species that thinks about the future," says executive producer David Goyer, whose writing credits include Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. "It's the blessing and curse of being human."

Joseph Fiennes, who plays FBI agent Mark Benford, centers a team assigned to solve the blackout that includes partner Demetri Noh (John Cho); colleague Janis Hawk (Christine Woods); and their boss, Stanford Wedeck (Courtney B. Vance). They and the other characters, including Benford's surgeon wife, Olivia (Sonya Walger), share their visions, but viewers see only bits and pieces at first, leaving twists and turns to be explored.

And "some people lie about their flash-forwards, so it's a little misdirection happening," Vance says. "It leaves the writers enormous latitude to tell stories."

Of fall's new shows, Flash Forward most closely fits the definition of the serialized epic, a sweeping tale mixing action, suspense, mystery, romance and melodrama. "It's a buffet," executive producer Marc Guggenheim (Eli Stone) says. "To reach the widest audience possible, you need to have that spice. You have to have that wide variety."

The best current example of the big, bold serialized mystery: ABC hit Lost. Fox's 24 incorporates many of those elements, though each season is self-contained. Fox's paranormal Fringe tries to temper its serialized elements, mixing long-term story with shorter, weekly ones. And ABC launches a remake of alien-invasion serial V in November.

The challenging format tends to demand more dedication from viewers, who may not want to make the time commitment, especially when there is no guarantee a show will reach its conclusion. It includes many recent failures, some of them noble, such as The Nine and Jericho, and even critically acclaimed successes Lost and 24 have hit bumps. NBC's Heroes, which tries to balance serialization with stand-alone volumes, was a big early hit but has since slumped.

Quick answers to questions

Goyer and Guggenheim say they are making the show as they want to, but their customized format - many character stories that wrap up in one episode, quick answers to major questions and a simplified but not dumbed-down mythology - also may make it appeal to a broader audience and casual viewers. "It's not that kind of show where if you don't catch it at the beginning you'll be lost," Vance says.

At the same time, more devoted fans will be rewarded with numerous little clues and hidden references. "You'll come across the true genius that is David Goyer, which is these Easter eggs," Fiennes says. "There's so much information that you could certainly go crazy trying to work it all out."

As another viewing incentive, Goyer promises to resolve virtually all questions raised in the pilot by this season's end. "We made the commitment very early on to answer some big questions and have some reveals very early. The audience will be surprised at some of the cards we turn over that early."

ABC has an interest in series that are "something epic in scope but also really emotional," network executive vice president Suzanne Patmore-Gibbs says. Characters must be at the core, she says, whether the serialized program is Lost, Grey's Anatomy or FlashForward.

Goyer likes mixing large and small. "One of the things I like to do is take a big, broad subject matter and see if you can work it through this intimate prism with characters who humanize what would normally be what some would call an E-ticket ride. I think we were able to do that with the Batman movies, and I feel that's what we're doing here."

He and Guggenheim are Lost fans, citing the Emmy-winning hit's groundbreaking nature as one reason they thought ABC would be a good place for their series. ABC hopes Lost fans connect with FlashForward.

"Lost is ending this year and hopefully going out with a bang. There's an audience base that's going to be craving another nuanced experience, and it would be nice to win some of those audience members," Patmore-Gibbs says. But she and others point out large differences between Lost and FlashForward, which was inspired by Robert Sawyer's novel of the same name and in planning before Lost was created. (The TV series veers far from the book, producers say.)

"It's not like we're going to unearth layers and layers that are more sci-fi or layers and layers of mythology. So I think it's easier to access in some ways," Patmore-Gibbs says.

Walger, who has had a recurring role on Lost, considers it "a huge compliment being (mentioned) in the same breath as Lost. (But) I think the similarity begins and ends with big ensemble casts."

FlashForward has a large, diverse ensemble - 11 series regulars, including Lost's Dominic Monaghan, and guest stars from around the world - that opens the door to many individual stories, both professional and personal. To be a TV series rather than a movie, FlashForward had to be about more than blackouts and flash-forwards, says Cho, who also visited the future in this year's Star Trek film.

"We couldn't hang our hats on that big concept. It had to be about relationships and how it affected everyone's lives. That, to me, was the hook," he says.

On the largest soundstage on the Disney studios lot, one usually reserved for feature films, some character stories - and bits of police and medical drama - are intersecting at Olivia's hospital when Mark and his FBI colleagues arrive. She has just saved a series regular who was injured in an attack resulting from their investigation.

"Mark has this guilt, but at the same time he feels vindicated that the clues are paying off," Fiennes says.

The 'what-if?' element

Of FlashForward's many elements, those involved with the series say science fiction may be the least. It also happens to be a genre label that turns off some viewers who might otherwise give a series or movie a try.

The show's science-fiction component is limited to the blackout and flash-forwards, if that, the producers say, with Goyer suggesting the ultimate cause may not even be in the realm of that genre. He describes the look forward as a "what if?" rather than science fiction, akin to Scrooge's glimpse of the future in A Christmas Carol.

While FlashForward's characters see bits of the future, Goyer and Guggenheim know it all, as in how the series ends.

"In a post-Lost world, when you take a pilot to the networks, they ask, 'Do you have any idea where it goes?' " Goyer says. "As a viewer, I would feel frustrated if the show creators don't know where they're going."

They have plotted the series out, a difficult task when it isn't known how long it will run. Goyer says they have loosely planned it for five seasons, could tell it in three, if necessary, or could "accordion it out" to run longer than five. Besides the ending, they say they know how the penultimate season concludes.

"They have had a destination in mind the whole time, knowing how hard it is when you don't," Patmore-Gibbs says. She notes Lost has benefited from having a fixed ending point, though no one suggested FlashForward might follow a similar plan.

The series can expand on a character or story if it breaks out in a big way. In the pilot, Benford encounters a kangaroo on a downtown L.A. street after the blackout. "It was something intended as a grace note. I didn't expect it to get quite the response it has," Goyer says. He and Guggenheim have made sure the Australian interloper will return.

"We've altered stuff along the way, as we've refined and gotten a better handle on things," Guggenheim says. "Something happens in the 11th episode of the show that had been planned for Episode 18, or even later."

But what happens after Season 1's last episode? If FlashForward answers nearly all the questions in the pilot by the season's end, what will be left for next year?

"I hope people ask that," Goyer says. "In some ways, I can't wait to get there. It's going to be more exciting than Season 1."

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