Box Jumps

With the possible exception of serial killing, the part of our culture most likely to produce copycats is television. Each idea that has any kind of success with or impact on viewers will be re-circulated more or less unmodified until the imitation has paled to the point it recalls the scene in Moulin Rouge where Nicole Kidman pretends to be Madonna pretending to be Marilyn Monroe. This is why there are currently five series airing on US television (that I can name!) about software developers and why so many recent TV dramas use flashback, even though it runs counter to the logic of television’s simultaneous time. A particularly alarming television trend doing the rounds at the moment is arbitrary jumps in time that leave huge gaps in series timelines. Rather than heralding a new style of TV storytelling, these flashforwards seem more like afterthoughts designed to resolve awkward continuity problems.

Fargo the year!

Fargo the year!

It was recently announced that the final season of HBO’s prohibition-era gangster drama Boardwalk Empire would take place in 1931, seven years after the end of the previous season, which had covered the late teens and early twenties in its first four seasons. The final few minutes of the latest season of docu-sitcom Parks and Recreation jumped three years ahead, omitting Leslie Knope’s pregnancy, the birth of her triplets, and the first years of her new job. FX’s thriller mini-series Fargo skipped a year in its last few episodes, this time allowing police Deputy Molly to get pregnant and criminal conspirators Lester and Lorne to start new lives. After nine episodes out of twelve, we’re still waiting for the belated revival of 24, Live Another Day, to jump a few hours to get us to the end of the day before the season ends, as promised by the show’s producers.

When TV shows did this in the past, it always smacked of desperation. It was no coincidence that Desperate Housewives jumped five years in its fifth season the same time as viewers were leaving the show in droves. Nor was a secret that One Tree Hill’s skip ahead four years halfway through its run was a thinly veiled attempt to bring characters’ ages into touch with the actors playing them. The time jump might be being deployed in a slightly smarter way these days, with Parks and Recreation’s implication that the nation has missed out on a three-year recurring guest role from Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, who is fired from Leslie’s office seconds after the ellipsis. But if you look at where the jumps are situated in the runs of these series, and think about why they should happen at that exact point, you’ll see they are no less crude.

As with flashbacks, part of the problem is that time jumps upset the way time works in television. It’s conventional that TV time runs concurrently with the time in which we live out our lives, and pleasurably so since much of the joy of watching TV is the way it syncs with what we’re doing. Time jumps invariably put a show ahead of the time of viewing, which makes it a kind of science-fiction, and would be fine if that’s what the programme-makers were going for. Aside from problems of realism and plausibility caused by the time jump, it also puts viewers at odds with programmes rather than it seguing with their daily and weekly lives. It’s also more of a placebo for story problems than a panacea. Things take time to work themselves out in television, and television should remain a record of that not a remedy for it.

Look what we missed!

Look what we missed!

A time jump might have relieved Parks and Recreation viewers of another pregnancy storyline but it also cheated them of character development. It’s very much a self-written corner since no-one asked the writers to put two pregnancies back-to-back. The loss of a full year in Fargo deprived the series of the suspenseful and tightly-knit storytelling that held the show together, resulting in a deeply unsatisfying denouement. We’ve yet to see how 24 will skip ahead to later hours of the day, but it’s bound to disrupt the real-time orthodoxy of the premise. The producers of Boardwalk Empire may feel they have more justification to move forward in time since it is a historical piece. My initial thoughts are that the 1930s is a very different animal historically, and that Boardwalk Empire can’t help but become a different programme. Can we jump forward to a time when TV doesn’t time jump?

 

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One Response to “Box Jumps”

  1. […] (adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({}); Here's my blog post about this phenomenon: Box Jumps | Watching TV with Americans What do you think of this trend? Is it helping or hindering these shows? […]

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