Friday, June 24, 2011

"Danger, Will Robinson!" pt 4: Flashing Forward

Part 4: The Flash Forward

"I hate when they do that!" Those are the fateful words that started this blog series. And I do. I hate when they do that. That thing I call the "flash forward." I don't know if the device has an actual name, but this is what I've decided to call it. The other option is that television shows are increasingly told in complete flashback mode. Now that I have you completely confused, let me explain.

Over the last several years, it has become fairly common practice for shows to start with a sequence in which we immediately find the heroes in mortal danger. We're just dropped into the middle of the action with no context whatsoever. After a few minutes to either completely confuse the audience so we're saying, "what's going on?" or to bring the hero(es) to the edge of death so we're saying "oh, crap," we switch to a new scene with a message something along the lines of "24 Hours Earlier." That's where the story actually begins. That bit at the beginning is just a gimmick to generate false interest in  the viewer so that the viewer wants to watch the episode, and I call it a "flash forward." It's a substitute for actual story telling.

I hate it.

Not that I always hated it. The first few times, it was kind of novel. Neat. But it's the kind of thing that should be the exception, the rare exception, not the rule. But I see it all the time.

Now, I will say that I may be more sensitive to this... issue... than the average television viewer due to the way I watch television, which is to say, I don't watch television. As such. First, we don't have cable. Second, we don't have satellite. Third, we don't even have an antenna. This translates into us never watching anything when it's originally aired, since all we get on our television is snow unless we're using the DVD player. We tend to watch shows in bursts due to this, either on DVD or streaming on Netflix. There have been shows where they begin 50-75% of the episodes with these flash forward bits and then drop us back in time to actually start the story up. Because I'm watching them back-to-back, it might be more bothersome to me than if I was watching the show once a week.

However, because it's caught my attention, I can say that it's a cheap trick designed to rope in viewers with the thrill of quick action. And it saves the show a bit of money since they have several minutes of footage they get to use twice (once we catch back to the beginning of the episode and get to see it again in context). Why does everything have to be a gimmick to trick us into watching things? If the show is good, has well written stories and good acting, people will watch it. Theoretically, anyway. Maybe Arrested Development should have employed this technique? No, probably not.

We've been re-watching Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, lately, just to put this whole thing in perspective. In the three seasons we've watched so far, there has not been one of these flash forward bits, and I will be surprised if we come across any in the full run of the show. I don't remember any, at any rate. I do think Firefly had one episode with a flash forward, but I don't remember more than that. Not that this has anything to do with Joss Whedon in particular, because those shows were before the gimmick became so common.

Maybe I'm being harsh. Maybe TV directors just use it because they think it's cool to start the shows that way. At first, it was. Actually, no, I doubt it. Because it's so frequent, I feel fairly confident that it's the producers and the networks advising the directors to start as many episodes as possible with the climax of that episode. Grab the people and make them want to see what's going on. Of course, when the episode turns out to be a piece of trash, you just feel cheated, so it doesn't keep a bad series from getting cancelled.

So, let me just say again, "I hate when they do that!" Yes, those are the fateful words that started this blog series, and I do. I hate when they do that. I'd like to say that those are the words that would end this series, but...

The real issue is that this flash forward thing is just a symptom of a larger problem. However, that's a problem for the next post in this series. Although I'd like to fight this particular symptom, I do think it's time to start looking at the disease.

To Be Continued...


  1. House uses this technique a lot and I also dislike it. I think people picked it up from Quentin Tarrentino who popularized it with his films and thus now everyone has to do it.

  2. You're exactly right. Whenever I see this happen, I groan. And it seems that, without fail, when we actually get to that climax, there's nothing really to it. Like you said, I always end up feeling cheated. If the storyline of the episode can stand on its own, then it should. If it can't, then why are they even using it? Great post.

  3. Now...I hate them.

    Two years ago...I liked them a lot.

  4. Michael: Possibly, I'm not enough familiar with Tarrentino, because I don't remember that from any of the movies I've seen from him.

    Julie: Well, I have my theory, but I'll get to that in my next post in this series. Like I said, it's a symptom of a larger problem.

    Sam: Yeah, I'm right there. I was trying to remember back to the first time I encountered this whole thing, but I don't know. Maybe, it was Alias? Or Stargate? It's just everywhere, now, though.

  5. I'm kind of of the opinion that it's all in the execution. Tropes are something that genre fiction writers have to deal with all the time, and in some cases that storytelling technique can kind of serve as one.

    I read a travelogue written that way once, the guy had been kidnapped in the mountains and then released to be hunted and killed for sport. So he started with the chase, then went back to the beginning.

    I didn't know it originated with Tarrentino either, and anything can become tiresome when overused. I'm told that TV directors got a little excited with using the zoom on their lenses in the seventies and a lot of shows from that era are overwhelmed with those quick zooms. It can become distracting once you start seeing it, you can't ignore it once you see it.

    But, since Psych has used the technique, and it's the greatest show ever, then it's okay with me.

  6. Rusty: Yes, it is in the execution; however, when anything starts getting over-used, it's a sure bet that it won't be used well. When it's integral to the story telling, it should certainly be used. When it's just the writers trying to start with a hook, probably not.

    I love Psych. Waiting for the last season to be available for rental, right now. I don't really remember it being used in the seasons we've seen so far, but it has been a year since I've seen an episode.

  7. Yeah it's a cheP trick, I think. No longer inventive. There's nothing so suspenseful and satisfying as a good story, just told from beginning to end,

    I think I do remember an episode of firefly that begins with mal alone sitting naked on a rock, then goes back and tells the story. But that was justnhilarious. And obviously the writers of firefly don't need to prove themselves. We know they can tell a good story without the flashback ;)

  8. Bess: Yeah, there is that episode. But, you know, that episode had artistic merit for starting that way. It was a great opening, because it was so unexpected.

    Starting with an opening with the heroes in danger, though, is no where near unexpected.

  9. Agreed about the quality of technique having a tendency to go down over time. I was watching a movie last week with one my kids and at a particularly dramatic moment, when the bad guy had a gun on the good guy, and things starting moving in slow motion, my son said, "Oh god, please don't let them do the bullet time thing, I'm so tired of that."


    Anyway, Psych used it when the guy from Wings was the guest star, they were looking for buried treasure. They started off being interrogated by the police and may have been arrested, but told the story through flashbacks until we were caught up half way through the episode.

  10. Doing a sreies of flashbacks can be okay. I can still like those. It's when the episode opens in the climatic sequence and then jumps back 8 hours or 24 hours or whatever and start again that I have an issue with it. That's when it's (almost always) just a gimmick to get you to watch.