Friday, 9 January 2015

Flashback to the Future

For some reason, I started thinking about flashbacks today (perhaps the reason will actually become clear in a later blog, explained through the use of a flashback?)

The flashback seems to be in vogue at the moment in serious TV drama, as a narrative device to add character backstory. The final season of Boardwalk Empire had them, Broadchurch is now including some, and Game of Thrones will apparently have a flashback at the beginning of its forthcoming fifth season. This latter decision is interesting, given the avoidance of flashback in the Game of Thrones world up until now. Considering how much of the plot revolves around lineage, longstanding grudges, references to dead kings and inter-family rivalry, a few judicious flashbacks would have made the first season much more digestible for the casual viewer. But perhaps that isn’t the point of Game of Thrones - it’s a story that you have to swallow whole or not at all.

Lost was the series that cemented the use of the flashback in serialised TV drama, focusing on a particular character’s backstory each week. The timelines involved were deliberately blurred, and it often wasn’t until the final flashback segment of an episode that you understood how (and when) the strands fitted together. Sometimes, you didn't immediately know which character the flashback was even about! This was a neat formula that kept the viewers guessing and allowed the writers to play some clever dramatic tricks. The most surprising was surely the final episode of season three, when it was revealed that what we presumed were flashbacks were actually a flashforward to season four. That very much threw the cat among the narrative pigeons, but in retrospect, it was perhaps also the point where Lost became too clever for its own good and started going downhill (a few years later, a series unimaginatively titled FlashForward tried to reuse the Lost template to greatly reduced effect).

So, what accounts for the current popularity of the flashback? Dramatically, it adds weight and structure to a story, which can make these TV series seem more important when awards season comes around. As serious drama continues to have more money and time in the schedule allowed to it, so space opens up for subplots which enrich character (and what is flashback if not just another kind of subplot?)

But there are dangers to the technique too. What begins as heavyweight and important can quickly drift into self-importance. It’s easy to indulge in excessive world and character building when you should be pushing the main storyline forward. When I think of a series like House Of Cards (which has incredibly detailed character work with minimal use of flashbacks), it’s clear to me that time spent in the past would greatly reduce the number of present-day characters that could be depicted, along with the ever-shifting web of allegiances that gives the narrative its tension and drive. It may be heresy to admit it, but I find the portentous flashforwards in Breaking Bad to be more annoying than tension-building, especially since the series is so damn tense already as to be almost unwatchable!

There seems to be significantly less use of the flashback in books, possibly because there’s a range of easier ways to deliver exposition. J.K. Rowling came up with a neat way of packaging flashback using Professor Dumbledore’s pensieve, which allowed Harry to experience other people’s backstory as it happened. Often, when flashbacks are used in books, they tend to be so numerous that they form a parallel narrative instead.

Maybe novels don’t need such devices to convey a perception of weight and importance, because just by being novels they’ve already achieved this status. I’m reminded that one of the key objectives of the HBO series The Wire (a strong influence on much serialised TV drama today) was to be more novelistic in its storytelling than conventionally televisual. So, I wondered to myself, how many flashbacks were used in five critically-acclaimed seasons of The Wire? Exactly one (in the pilot episode), which was demanded by network executives, worried that viewers wouldn't be able to follow the story. Where flashbacks are concerned, less is definitely more.



  1. A thorough analysis I found useful. Ideally I like more reference to books - as I am not that up on contemporary TV - but that's just me. Thanks, Nick.

    1. I'm very happy for people to add more detail as comments. I found myself struggling to think of book examples, but it may be that I don't notice flashbacks in the same way, or that I'm not reading the right kind of books, or they simply aren't as prevalent. There's certainly plenty of parallel narrative going on in books - something like Sara Grant's Half Lives would be a good example, where both the "then" and "now" are equally important. I recently re-read Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five and that has a narrative that slides backwards and forwards in time almost at will.

  2. I just remembered Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve. That has some really interesting flashbacks with a character experiencing them as an overlay onto the present day.

  3. Really good argument against flashbacking, Nick.
    Is flash forwarding slightly on its way out now too? It seemed to reach its peak with the Damages series. Flash forwading was great in the first series but was heading towards cliche in subsequent series. I was ok with The Breaking bad flash forwards tho and agree re Breaking Bad tension!

    1. Ooh, I forgot about Damages. I loved the first series of that, but agree that it went downhill afterwards.