It's a simple but fascinating scenario: what if one seemingly ordinary day everyone in the world suffered a simultaneous blackout, during which they had a vision of their future six months down the line? How would different individuals react? Would it change your life or would you simply laugh it off? How would various governments respond – by investigating the problem or by pretending that it had never occurred? And, most importantly of all, what would happen next?
Such is the intriguing premise behind FlashForward, the most eagerly awaited American drama of the year, which begins on Five on Monday. Hailed as the new Lost thanks to a series of mysterious teaser previews and shrouded in mystery – journalists watching the first episode in the US had to sign confidentiality agreements – FlashForward is aiming to become that rare thing: a cult drama with the ability to attract a mainstream audience.
Whether it will succeed largely depends on people's appetites for yet another compelling but convoluted drama that throws up more questions than it may be able to answer. Certainly all the signs that made Lost a hit are there, from mysteriously named corporations (for the Dharma Initiative read the Mosaic Collective), to tormented heroes (FBI agent Mark Benford, played by Joseph Fiennes is, like Lost's super -surgeon Jack, a soulful former alcoholic), to an almost Rainman-esque obsession with numbers (in place of Lost's infamous sequence, FlashForward offers us the length of the visions – two minutes and 17 seconds – and the date in the future they take place – 29 April, 2010).
And, as if those similarities weren't enough, there are even a couple of former Losties in the cast. Benford's elegant surgeon wife is played by Sonya Walger, aka Lost's star-crossed Penny, while Dominic Monaghan, fresh from his stint as washed-up rock musician turned heroic game-changer Charlie in Lost, turns up in the new show as the mysterious but apparently still game-changing Simon. Yet, despite the similarities, FlashForward's makers insist that they're not simply trying to remake JJ Abrams's successful show. "They [the comparisons] are accurate in that we also have a very large cast and are telling a very big, cinematic, ambitious story," admits FlashForward's co-creator David S Goyer. "But I think, once you see the pilot... that's where the similarities end."
One central difference is that, unlike the freewheeling Lost, which frequently gives off the impression of being improvised as it goes along, FlashForward is adapted from Robert J Sawyer's 1999 sci-fi novel of the same name. Goyer and co-creator Marc Guggenheim have, however, played fast and loose with the original material, simplifying Sawyer's original story, compressing the flash-forwards from 21 years to six months, and widening out the cast-list from a group of particle physicists to encompass a wider variety of jobs. (Despite these changes, Sawyer is reportedly happy with what he has seen and in talks to write an episode later in the season).
Furthermore, Goyer, who co-wrote the scripts for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, insists that his show will answer the relevant questions sooner rather than later, including the all-important teaser: "are the visions real or not?"
"We've already finished the first seven episodes and it'll become crystal clear by the end of those episodes that we're not just going to vamp until episodes 20 and 21 and then a bunch of shit's going to happen," he said after a recent screening. "We're never going to lie to the audience. We're going to play by the rules."
Brave words, but Goyer, a self-confessed obsessive fan of sci-fi master HP Lovecraft, understands his audience better than most, and while he is prepared to indulge their geeky side – one of FlashForward's best conceits is the Mosaic Collective website, which is the ultimate in social-networking experiments, an interactive website purporting to show what everyone's future vision was, including your own – he is also clear that this show will be less complicated than Lost.
"The only leap you have to make is the existence of the flash-forward," he said recently. "If people can accept everything that is happening on Lost, they can accept this."
They may accept it, but will they turn FlashForward into a bona fide hit? Since JJ Abrams's island mystery began in 2004 there have been any number of Lost wanabees, including Heroes, Six Degrees, The Nine, Dollhouse and Fringe. Some of these shows have been successful, some were cancelled a handful of episodes in, and none of them have proved to have either the staying power or the ratings consistency of Abrams's hit.
Stephen McPherson, entertainment president of the ABC network on which both shows will appear, recently admitted to Entertainment Weekly that Lost was a tough act to follow, adding that they were hoping FlashForward might manage it. "Our intention was not to imitate Lost... [although] we have certainly been looking for that next hit," McPherson said. "I don't think we have had an idea as special as that since then."
Yet it is possible that Lost's appeal is a unique one, and certainly keeping track of the hatches and numbers, the smoke monsters and polar bears, back-stories and time twists has proved a complicated and frequently frustrating experience with even the most devoted fan unable to deny that there have been times when the ball has been dropped (pretty much during the whole of season two, for example).
Given that, can anyone really be bothered to commit to yet another television show that plays with time and features a large interlinked cast most of whom are hiding some sort of secret? McPherson believes so, but he does admit that there are potential problems ahead.
"These high-concept shows can be fantastic but there are a lot of pitfalls," he said. "The fact that [FlashForward's writers] had done their homework made all the difference."
Where that homework really plays off is in the character's back-stories and visions. In addition to Fiennes's Benford (whose vision sees him trying to crack the truth behind the blackout but also back drinking again), there's his wife Olivia, who is shocked to see herself in bed with a mysterious stranger played by Jack Davenport; a tomboyish, eternally single FBI agent who sees herself pregnant and having a ultrasound scan; a failed musician who sees himself playing a generation-defining hit to a rapt stadium; and Benford's partner, who doesn't have a vision but simply blacks out, and fears that this means that in six months time he'll be dead.
With so many different and intriguing stories to follow it's hard, despite initial scepticism, not to find yourself pulled in, particularly because, in contrast to Lost, FlashForward's central mystery boils down to one question: are the visions real or not?
The simple answer is that, if enough people find that question fascinating enough to tune in and find out, then ABC, and by extension Five, will have a hit on their hands.
'FlashForward' begins on Monday, at 9pm, on Five