I’ve been (hardly) working my way through Breaking Bad, one of the more remarkable American TV shows of our time, and one of the most striking features of the series is its timeframe. Eschewing the TV rule of thumb that the time onscreen runs parallel with the duration of the initial broadcast, all 5 seasons of AMC’s family crime dramedy take place over the course of a couple of years (there’s a few episodes left but all indications are we’ll go no further ahead than that) effectively making the series a period piece by the time it finishes in 2013. This jeopardises Breaking Bad’s plausibility. The tectonic shifts in character and flurry of cataclysmic events which transform a high school chemistry teacher into an international druglord would be far more credible if spread over a vast number of years. Inside an 18-month window, it puts the series in the realms of bizarre melodrama. We also can’t take what happens to the characters as development as no-one has the luxury of time for any significant growth to occur. Instead, we’re witnessing how the cast of characters react to crises and trauma and watching them expose the existing depths of their personalities.
The time we watch TV is regulated and ongoing so it’s natural for most shows to try and match this for the sake of minimum disruption. Look how seasons of The Office begin with a re-cap of what happened to the characters during the Summer, when the show was off-air, simply to remind audiences that the onscreen and offscreen time syncs up and that the hiatus experienced by viewers was simultaneously endured by the characters. It’s especially important to make sure TV shows can capitalise on seasonally themed episodes (Christmas, Halloween) by juxtaposing them with the time they occur in the real world. Deviating from this scheduling ritual is a source of much innovation and originality in US TV. Unconventional uses of time can be the difference between cliché-ridded formula fare and mould-breaking masterpiece. People were happy to forget what a laboured potboiler 24 was because of its real-time season-as-a-day format and that the non-linear point-of-view narrated Boomtown was just another cancellation fodder cop show. It can even just be temporary relief from a format that is grindingly rigid in how it treats time. Brain-sparing cause-and-effect procedural CSI frequently throws in a flashback or reverse episodes to break the monotony.
In a show like Breaking Bad, quirky time management isn’t the first blow of brilliance hitting you over the head but more like a gentle pat on the shoulder reassuring you of quality. If timing is the most noticeable characteristic of a programme, then chances are it will be a fast-fading novelty. 24 lasted 10 years on air but no-one in TV seems especially interested in using its format again. Boomtown was cancelled after 2 seasons once all possibilities of fragmented viewpoint-driven storytelling had been exhausted. On the other hand, it’s possible to watch the entirety of Twin Peaks and Deadwood without acknowledging how each episode crafts its multiple storylines into one day’s worth of time and lose nothing of their artistic brilliance. Indeed it seems perfectly in tune with Twin Peaks’ satire of soap opera and tendency towards the supernaturally fantastic that such an overwhelming wealth of events occur in a ludicrously short space of time. More than that, equating a single episode with 1 day has subsequently become TV’s way of making it seem like it’s running alongside everyday life. Unlike the patchy coverage we get from calendar-linked shows, here we never miss a minute of the action.
It would be wrong to assume that US TV shows deal with time in a way that is abstract or avant-garde. Even the most altered state of TV time is highly structured and controlled. The dream world of Twin Peaks may have ruptured the show’s real world chronology but it was only ever there in the first place to plug a gap in the middle of the screenplay of the pilot. The spread of TV might be amorphous and ever-expanding but individual programmes and their runs are tightly timetabled and time within them needs to follow suit. It’s no coincidence that the innovations of time in TV storytelling have complimented the scheduling of the programme. US TV dramas are an hour fitted into a run of 21-25 hence a thriller set over 24 hours with each episode an hour. So is Breaking Bad doing something genuinely outlandish? Time will tell.