Are you Suffering From Flashback Fatigue in TV Shows?

Lost, Arrow, The Handmaid's Tale... do flashback episodes ever get you down?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? We’ve waited a week for the brand new ep of our favorite new show, desperate to see some forward momentum, some steps towards being satisfied or a road to resolution. But as the intro fades, something seems amiss, out of place and out of time.

Ugh! Flashback episode.

Any English major should be able to tell you that the first rule of creative writing is “don’t talk about creative writing.” More appropriately, the third rule of creative writing is “show, don’t tell.” Let’s hope these kids don’t want to move on and become screenwriters, as the world of TV seems to disagree with the third rule and like a two-dollar snitch, insists on telling you everything now.

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Although now widespread, this is a feeling which first emerged during a love affair with Lost. A week went by with countless hours spent reading forums and reviews and theorizing accordingly on the unanswered questions: Was the Island actually purgatory? Was the Smoke Monster made up of nanobots? Do the showrunners actually have an ending in mind? As it turns out, the answer to all of the above was a resounding “nope.”

However, it barely mattered as the mystery was the most attractive aspect of the show (Kate notwithstanding). Flashbacks were component parts of each episode, enabling exploration of the islanders’ previous circumstances in relation to their current predicament.

The trouble is, the mysteries never felt like they got any closer to be being solved via flashbacks of some of the more incidental characters. In particular, the Sun and Jin-centric episodes felt particularly arduous. Sure, we found out that Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) would resort to violence to protect and provide for Sun (Yunjin Kim), that ironically he was a man of honour but also that she was planning to run away from him. Now, that’s all good and well, but what about the Island’s nefarious inhabitants “the Others? Why is everyone hallucinating? How come Hurley’s still so… husky? Sorry, but you’re not finding out this week.

Excessive character detail regularly filled episodes with only occasional and arbitrary links to the big questions. With a whopping seventy-two episodes in the first three seasons alone, it’s safe to say that it was flabby and someone’s luck was being pushed.

Although this example is exclusive to everyone’s favourite, definitely-not-in-the-afterlife island, it’s an issue that’s inherent in modern television. Sure, the Netflix model seems to have enabled the fat to be trimmed through a reduction of uniformity in episode and season length, but it seems fair to say that flashbacks are more often used for padding rather than progression. Flashbacks are traditionally tools of character development as opposed to narrative structure, so shouldn’t the flashbacks concern characters that we actually care about? Or at the very least characters who are integral to the narrative?

The Handmaid’s Tale is a case in point. Episode 3 gave the viewer vivid recalls to the war which raged in reaction to role of women being reduced to child-bearing vessels. The flashbacks to Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and her family’s bid for escape from the impending dictatorship infused her character with desperation and determination, which started to seep into her modern day incarnation as a concubine. Here, we began to see plans put into place for the fight back against the patriarchy. It was masterful use of the technique which enriched the protagonist’s character, conjuring pathos from the viewer.

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What did we get in Episode 7? A flashback to how her husband and Craig David lookalike Luke (O-T Fagbenle) survived after their violent separation. Oh. Seen only in flashbacks throughout the series, why should the viewer care? Ah, perhaps he’s going to make an appearance in the finale and save our poor, defenceless Offred. Oh. Whatever next? A flashback of how chauffeur, charisma-vacuum and rent-a-dick Nick (Max Minghella) became a secret agent known as an ‘Eye’. Oh.

The thing is, we’re not talking about single scenes either; we’re talking about nearly half an episode. What’s that? Half an hour? Haven’t any of us got anything better to be getting on with? We’ve got a new season of The Walking Dead right around the corner as well as umpteen Marvel and DC spin-offs and team-ups on our DVR. We don’t need to know about Nick’s failed job interviews, or if Luke took her for a drink on Monday and we already knew that Jin protected Sun; we saw it every single week on the island. To tenuously but gratuitously quote Al Pacino in Heat; “Don’t waste my motherfucking time!”

Not to be a complete and utter naysayer though, it’s undeniable that flashbacks have their place and if used successfully, are able to drive character and plot development effectively and economically within the space of a single scene.

The first season of Arrow, for example, more often than not saw the island flashbacks depicting the fledgling survival skills of our hero and his eventual evolution into the Vigilante. When juxtaposed with the modern day Oliver Queen picking up his drunk sister from da club, arguing with his minder and attending quarterly finance meetings, hardly surprisingly, some viewers were left shouting “we have to go back!”

However, the show has long-since picked up pace on and off-island and is preparing to go into its sixth season. Queen’s five year flashbacks are being dropped in favor of possibly developing *shudder* other characters. Let’s hope they don’t fail the city.

In addition to Arrow (and never too cool to avoid dropping a Friends reference) flashback episodes always felt welcome in the ‘always on somewhere in the world’ smash hit sitcom (recap episodes, however are an altogether different beast and can do one). Whether it was Fat Monica or Flock of Seagulls Chandler, Ross’ keyboard or Rachel’s big-ass nose, perhaps it’s the lack of dramatic tension that allowed the viewer to forgive the flashbacks, because they were largely there for the laughs anyway. Except when Ross and Rachel were all ‘will they, won’t they?’ I still haven’t got over her getting off the plane.

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Compare that with, say, Family Guy: anecdotal flashbacks are forced on the viewer so frequently that they no longer have to wonder how Japanese water torture felt. Any momentum the narrative once had is long-since lost and the episode feels thoroughly throwaway. And again, like Lost, later seasons fall to the law of diminished returns.

So what do we want? The royal “we” want flashbacks that are worth our while. Tell us about the character’s motivations, insecurities and inner workings that can’t be told in the current timeframe; tell us something about the lead character that the other characters don’t know; enable the viewer to experience a sense of intimacy with the protagonist and a sense of acrimony towards the antagonist.  

It’s perhaps not the best example, but even the last season of 24 was only 13 episodes. Keep it lean; Leave the viewer desperate to go away and think about backstories, characters and relationships and to join the dots themselves.

Flashback: What was it my English teacher used to say? “Less is more.” See? It works.