Monday, September 28, 2009
In the beginning was Lost. Well, there was probably time-tripping television before then, but it’s irrelevant because we live in a post-9-11 world where the president's shirt sleeves matter, the new timeline broken off into the ocean like California. Also Star Trek only begat more Star Trek, and Doctor Who only resurfaced after Lost made pop culture safe for wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. The high-concept time-jump craze is directly attributable to Lost via the surge of network sci-fi.
So Lost, obsessed with the malleability of time and space with respect to consciousness, illustrates its thematic preoccupations with flashbacks and –forwards, time-jumping, and now presumably time-altering.
Five years later, showrunners will realize that they can suck gobs of money just by assembling a classic soap opera—disparate character types drawn together by shared trauma like suicide, affairs, and medical problems—and topping it with the flashforward gimmick. The time-tripping doesn’t magically solve the story’s triteness, but it does hide it a bit. Which is why plenty of television writers love the shockingly unimaginative FlashForward, whose omens apparently chart the same territory as Oedipus Rex, only two and a half millennia later.
FlashForward is simply the latest violator, a titled symbol for the banality of the time-jump. You may think we’ve ventured into an alternate universe, because I’m about to praise Damages and knock Battlestar Galactica. But the Damages technique—a Memento throwback where glimpses of the future eventually become the present, later employed by Breaking Bad—is a sparing, compelling suspense generator. Battlestar’s flaw was an overreliance on the “x hours earlier” conceit, necessitated by an opening flashforward, during Season 2. Of course, Battlestar paid its debt with the masterpiece of television time-jumping, the “one year later” stroke at the end of “Lay Down Your Burdens.”
Twenty-four hours earlier, the last straw arrived when Mad Men opened in flashforward. That’s right: so-classical-it-hurts Mad Men showed symptoms of a dangerous postmodernist infection, using the same gimmick that opened last night’s timeslot rival, the season premiere of Brothers and Sisters. The reigning Best Drama experienced an unfortunate lapse into network soap cliché, and after all was said and done, Brothers and Sisters out-time-gimmicked Mad Men. The former used its flashforward as a red herring—weak and unnecessary, but unexpected at least—while Mad Men tried to generate interest with a few unusual shots of the main characters, followed by a “how they got there” narrative.
Nonlinear chronology only serves stories that work apart from their tricks—too much temporal discombobulation begets Heroes. Today the best use of time-skipping might be on How I Met Your Mother, which playfully hops around the many years that span Ted’s story with comedic narrative techniques from hair alterations to forgotten or imagined details. It’s a fun guest to have over when it has something interesting to say, but with its ubiquity manifest from Dollhouse to NCIS and back again, the flashforward has more than worn out its welcome.