Orange is the New Flashback

In retrospect Lost ruined American television storytelling. Despite the unbeatable meat locker premise of plane crash survivors trapped on a desert island, the series was an exercise in turning story back to front. Each episode was padded with extensive flashbacks detailing the lives and backgrounds of each character which would routinely distract the series from its primary location and central conceit. In periodic flashback, the writers had discovered a structural ploy that could get them out of having to do character development and exposition in the screenplay. US TV writers have been using these throwbacks ever since the success and acclaim of Lost made it acceptable to do so and they are now synonymous with quality. Today you’d be hard pushed to find an American TV drama (and non-studio comedy, for that matter) that doesn’t have flashback hard-wired into its format. Lurching into the past occurs so regularly in the course of coveted TV series such as Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead that it begins to look like a sophisticated way to tell stories.

Lost in the past?

Flashback-in-the-pan storytelling has reached new extremes in the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black. Like Lost, the series has a genre setting-the prison-which can create a self-enclosed world for the drama to play out in. And Jenji Kohan’s series seems equally determined to throw away this potential with lengthy origin stories for each prisoner propping up the episodes. But Orange is the New Black puts the cart before the horse like never before. We’re barely allowed to glimpse inside the walls of the prison before we’re in the televisual time tunnel witnessing protagonist Piper’s road to incarceration. To add insult to injury the life events we’re seeing are not so idiosyncratic as to be completely unimaginable by the (presumably free-thinking) audience. I can figure out in my head what Piper coming on to the idea to make and sell artisanal bath products with her sister looks and sounds like as a dramatic scene. All I need is the knowledge of it. Most subsequent episodes begin with prisoner origin stories instead of the prison.

You’ll see more of the prison here than in the pilot!

This is undoubtedly the culmination of nearly a decade of bumping backstory upfront but it’s also a by-product of Netflix viewing practices. With Netflix series, all of a season’s episodes are released to subscribers at once. Producers and writers have to assume that there are significant numbers of viewers who will consume the episodes in one go. With this in mind, it might be deemed more important to give the audience something to go on to rather than something to go on. With a week (or more) separating each episode of a network-aired series, single instalments must deliver a gain or development of substance to keep viewers going in the meantime. Not so much for Netflix which puts no delays in front of ongoing viewing and hence never has to get anywhere by the ends of episodes. Orange is the New Black can then afford to indulge in flashback as the prison story may be told piecemeal without incurring the same frustration it would in a series where viewers have to wait for new episodes.

Cards on the table. I’m prejudiced against TV using flashbacks to tell stories. It’s so normalised in American TV now that most viewers probably don’t notice, or don’t find it that disagreeable. But I don’t like it because I think it’s a cheat. To put something back in that’s been forgotten about or not properly realised at a later date is fine, as long as it’s a heartfelt apology. To do it with the pretence of complex storytelling, as if it is somehow a better alternative to writing a screenplay properly in the first place, is just dishonest. Used sparingly and as a last resort for conveying information, I think flashback can be massively effective. The governor of all prison dramas Oz had flashbacks to the crimes of all the inmates as they were introduced, but in uninterruptive 10-second blips with startling power and minimum story drag. The Sopranos saved flashbacks for life events that had just been recovered in memory or for moments too painful for characters (or viewers) to endure at the time.

Oz: a prison drama…in prison.

Now that flashbacks are inextricably bound up in what we think of as good television and are favoured in the ascendant Netflix model of TV viewing, American television storytelling is only going to get worse. My only hope is the linear becomes fashionable again when TV flashbacks finally become passé.

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