Friday, December 02, 2016

Time After Time

So I've watched a few more episodes of This Is Us, NBC's new hit.  It's maintained the same level of quality, but I still have a problem: its double timeline.

Perhaps it's just a quirk of mine, but it really bothers me when the characters know everything about the past, but it's being withheld from us, and each piece is revealed only to comment on the "present" of the show.  What I like about TV drama is how we discover new things along with the characters, or get to watch the characters discover things we already know.  To keep us in the dark artificially about things the characters could have spilled at any time just annoys me. The idea of waiting for each new episode to give us just a little bit more of what we could have known from the start makes me not want to watch a show.  I can deal with this wait over a two-hour movie, but year after year?  No thanks.

Has this happened before?  You bet.  One of the first examples I can recall is The Nine, an ABC drama from 2006 about a bunch of people who were caught in a hostage situation.  The show followed these characters lives after the incident, and each episode would show a few moments from the traumatic situation.  So each week's snippet was designed to comment on what's happening with the characters on this week's episode, even though all the character at all times know everything that happened to them during those life-changing hours.  And the plan of the producers, presumably, was to do this for years on end, until the show is canceled (which actually happened pretty quickly).  Unbearable.

The Nine was sort of a knock-off Lost (one of many), with its flashback format.  But Lost, which I loved, used the past differently.  The present of the show, always the central story, was about a bunch of people discovering more and more about a mysterious island, and we, the audience, were discovering it with them.  The flashbacks (well-done dramatically in themselves) helped establish who these characters were and how they got to the island, and we wanted very much to be filled in.  But each flashback was unique to one character, it wasn't about something that everyone already knew but were artificially keeping from us. (And even then Lost had to eventually drop the flashback device, since you can't keep it up forever.)

Other shows that I have avoided, or stopped watching because of this double timeline, where the story is filled in for us while the main character or characters already know everything:  Quantico, How I Met Your Mother, Rectify.

(Many think Westworld had more than one timeline, but that's okay since we're discovering what's going along with most of the characters, and no one seems to be aware of everything, not even Anthony Hopkins.)

So I stand at the crossroads.  This Is Us is a decent show, even if family drama isn't generally my cup of tea. But to be kept in the dark for the indefinite future is not my idea of fun.  Maybe I'll wait until the whole thing is over and then watch it all at once--the period of painful ignorance will be a lot shorter.


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