Let's Not Do the Time Warp Again
The remote seems to hang in the air for a moment, its infrared sensor mixing with the light coming in through the window to create a pixellated rainbow before the device crashes into the screen of my television. I lean back, satisfied that my rage has found a therapeutic outlet, then turn and look for other things to break.
You’re probably wondering how I got here. So let’s flash back a few weeks earlier to explain. Or would it be better if I told my tale of TV-critic woe in the proper order, rather than starting with a semi-exciting incident before rewinding to how things really began? Because a plague has descended upon the land of Peak TV, one in which fractured timelines are sucking the life out of far too many stories.
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The idea of nonchronological storytelling itself is far from new to television. Seinfeld did an episode where the story ran backwards, called “The Betrayal,” three years before Christopher Nolan’s Memento hit theaters. Nineties drama juggernaut ER eventually fell in love with the idea of starting episodes in the middle of a story (a.k.a. in medias res) and then going back several hours to illustrate how one of the heroic docs got into that sticky situation.
Recently, though, the “24 Hours Earlier” chyron has gone from an occasional gimmick to what feels like the narrative default. Next week alone, three scripted series are premiering that use some variation of the device: HBO Max’s Made for Love (April 1st), Netflix’s The Serpent (April 2nd), and AMC’s Gangs of London (April 4th). In fact, you’d be hard pressed to identify any recently-premiered series that didn’t monkey with time a little, versus naming ones that did. Even shows made for preschoolers, like Netflix’s City of Ghosts, can’t resist it!
So why, you may ask, is this a problem? Have I just become an old man who yells at clouds? Or is it the children who are wrong?
When used smartly, scrambled narratives, flashbacks, flash-forwards, parallel timelines, etc., can have incredible impact. Three of the best drama pilots ever made — Alias, Lost, and Breaking Bad — use one or more of these devices, and are vastly more exciting for it. Alias begins with a cinnamon-haired Sydney Bristow on the verge of being tortured by Chinese government officials, then bounces between that situation and the story of how she wound up cuffed to a chair, her teeth at risk of extraction. Lost (also from J.J. Abrams, though co-creator Damon Lindelof has played with time plenty in his later projects) starts moments after the crash of Oceanic 815, only later offering glimpses of the passengers in midflight. And Breaking Bad famously begins with Walter White in his underwear, recording a farewell video message to his family, as he expects to die in a gunfight with police; then the story dives into his pre-meth life. Those shows also continued to move backward and forward in time as needed throughout their runs, with Lost devoting an entire season to time travel and Breaking Bad teasing its series finale at the start of the previous season.
So nonlinear narratives themselves aren’t the issue. It’s that too many people — both creators and executives — have looked at the shows that did it right and said, “Oh, that’s easy! We can do it, too.” So what was once an occasional, artisanal treat is now junk food so shoddy and mass-produced, you don’t even get the initial sugar rush out of it.
Several showrunners have told me that this is now a frequent note they get from network and studio bosses, especially on pilot episodes. (One even claimed that agreeing to the note was the price of getting their show greenlit.) With so many shows to choose from, everyone is afraid of losing the viewers’ attention for even a second. So, they’ve decided the simplest, surest way to prevent that is to jump past the boring exposition, present someone leaping through a plate-glass window or robbing a bank while dressed as Angela Merkel, and only then properly introduce everybody(*). But very few creators are as talented as Vince Gilligan (who also uses a nonlinear framing device for each season of the Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul). So between the comedown in basic artistry and the sheer ubiquity of the device, what’s meant to titillate (“Ooh, I can’t wait to find out what that’s about!”) instead aggravates (“Oh, this again?”).
(*) What’s particularly exasperating is when the flash-forward teasers aren’t even that exciting to begin with. NatGeo’s The Right Stuff series opens with two of its astronauts competitively jogging, shaving, and eating breakfast before the story retreats two years into the past to begin the tale of how they came to so dislike each other. Opening in medias res in general betrays a lack of confidence in the material, but when you’re starting with guys crankily eating steak and eggs, you may as well give up.
The showiness and overuse of starting in the middle can also have the unintended consequence of pulling the viewer out of the story. We know we’re enjoying a fiction, but storytellers have to be very careful of how, and how often, they remind us of that, in the same way that Superman writers are generally better off not trying to explain why a pair of eyeglasses are enough to conceal Clark Kent’s identity. When you’re keeping track of timelines and looking for clues on how the past and present will link up, you’re not as focused on what the characters are feeling and experiencing in the moment you’re actually watching.
This is an even bigger problem for shows that rip apart their timelines beyond their opening scenes. The first season of True Detective did this beautifully, with glimpses of the middle-aged, ruined Rust Cohle and Marty Hart providing both an emotional anchor and some narrative clarity for the flashback scenes about the case they worked together. More often, though, charting what timeline you’re in and how it relates to the other ones becomes work that unplugs the viewer from the story they’re watching. Even when there’s a thematic point to going nonlinear, like how the first few seasons of Westworld were about both humans and machines getting caught up in their own behavioral loops, the mental effort required almost always outweighs the spiritual reward.
The action-packed British crime drama Gangs of London plays with time less aggressively than next week’s other notable premieres, largely moving forward chronologically after a colorful in medias res murder scene to set the mood. Made for Love, a sci-fi comedy starring Cristin Milioti as a woman whose tech-mogul husband implants a chip in her head to track her actions and thoughts, zigzags through the whole history of the ugly marriage, and even before. The Serpent, about real-life serial killer Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) preying on Western tourists traveling Asia’s “hippie trail” in the Seventies, dramatizes Sobhraj’s many crimes wildly out of order, and in parallel with a chronological timeline where Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) and his wife Angela (Ellie Bamber) become amateur sleuths when the local authorities won’t sufficiently investigate the murder of a pair of Dutch tourists.
Made for Love at least gets some comic mileage by presenting events almost at random, and it fits with the idea of Milioti’s character constantly revisiting her past to avoid thinking about her depressing present. The Serpent, though, undercuts itself at every turn by not moving in one direction. There are frequent chyrons to remind the viewer of exactly where they are in Sobhraj’s story, but a whiteboard may be required to recall when certain events happen relative to others. Scenes are often presented multiple times from multiple perspectives in different episodes, in theory to provide new context to what we previously saw. Coupled with Sobhraj’s ritualized methods — he would poison his victims, making them sick enough to depend on him for everything — it makes the story feel more monotonous than intended. (Nobody needs to see this many scenes of people writhing in intestinal discomfort.) And while the nonlinear approach sometimes ups the suspense level, it mostly gets in the way. Jenna Coleman gives a strong performance as Sobhraj’s girlfriend, Marie-Andrée Leclerc, but how Leclerc evolves from unsuspecting love interest to semi-willing accomplice gets lost in all the shuffling. Eventually, the two timelines merge, with Herman and Angela making enough progress that The Serpent takes on an urgency befitting the atrocities committed by Sobhraj. Those later chapters are so tense, exciting, and at times touching that the periodic rewinds don’t get in the way too much. The question is how many viewers will stick around for that payoff.
The structure will feel familiar from a number of recent docuseries, such as The Vow or The Last Dance. In many cases, it feels like an attempt to hide the padding of a story that easily could have been told in half the time (if not less). This is a variation on the problem of so many series these days being feature-film ideas that were simply expanded when they couldn’t be sold to a movie studio. But a “10-hour movie” presented in this convoluted way ultimately isn’t any more satisfying than one that goes in order.
I asked a writer who’s worked both on shows that are chronological and shows that aren’t about the proliferation of nonlinear narrative. They said, “You have to answer, ‘Why are you doing this?’” The device is generally more effective at revealing character than in concealing plot, this writer argued, and is best when the audience winds up in the same headspace as the character — like with poor Leonard with his short-term memory problems in Memento. Too many recent shows just go out of sequence for an initial jolt of adrenaline, or to turn basic story points into mysteries, leaving the whole thing feeling at best like an empty exercise, at worst like an annoying rehash of tropes that half of television currently uses. “When you think about it,” the writer added, “all stories start in medias res,” because even a story that begins with a character’s birth is still coming in after their parents met, etc. Once upon a time, though, stories generally continued on from wherever they chose to begin, and that’s happening much less often than it should.
As I’ve watched a lot of in medias res openings over the last few years, I’ve frequently vented that if you can’t tell your story chronologically in order, then you should find a different story to tell. That’s obviously reductive thinking; I wouldn’t want to see wholly linear versions of Memento or Breaking Bad or Pulp Fiction. Still, far too many series are unsticking themselves in time now, and doing it poorly. The device has gone from a rare and thrilling surprise to a familiar and frustrating crutch — one that shows like The Serpent keep tripping over.
TV shows don’t have to stay linear, but at this moment in time, they need a really good reason not to. For the sake of my endangered TV screen, if nothing else.
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