“The pandemic has really turned my sense of time upside down,” says Patrick Somerville, showrunner of HBO Max’s “Station Eleven,” adapted from the novel of the same name. “Joe Biden has been president for a year? What? Everything is accordion – longer and shorter. ‘Station Eleven’ reflects what we’ve been through. This is what we have become now; we all fell apart in an instant.
Falling apart in an instant may feel true in real life; it’s also a thoughtful way to think about the structural twists in time that some of the hottest shows of the past TV season have put into their stories.
Limited and ongoing series including ‘Station Eleven’, ‘Yellowjackets’, ‘Pachinko’, ‘Only Murders in the Building’, ‘The Afterparty’, ‘Life & Beth’ and ‘Russian Doll’ dropped the arcs of traditional linear stories to bifurcate (if not trifurcate and beyond) storylines that involve extended flashbacks to tell multiple interconnected stories.
This kind of setup is actually more true to reality than a simple chronological narrative, suggests Phil Lord, executive producer of Apple TV+’s “Afterparty,” a show that focuses on different witnesses’ takes on the same crime. , through unique personality-driven points of view. (think “Rashomon” with songs and some animation). “No human being tells a story in real time,” he says. “Humans who construct a narrative remember it and write it at the same time.”
Soo Hugh, showrunner on Apple TV+’s “Pachinko,” clearly shares this take. Her series, based on a book that tells her story in chronological order, involves going back and forth between generations of members of the same Korean family. She notes that she wanted the show to be “a conversation between generations”.
“The show was meant to be a kaleidoscope of life,” says Hugh. “I wanted some [real-life] disorder. There’s a character who dies very early, and later we meet this character as a young woman, and I thought: it’s like a narrative reincarnation. When you play with time like this, you can reincarnate characters over and over again.
Real life and memory also permeate Hulu’s “Only Murders,” which tells the story of amateur investigators investigating a crime in their apartment building, but switches freely between the years before and after the crime, with extended segments that don’t are not mere flashbacks. The result in “Murders” – as in these other series – creates a more textured and emotional story that engages the viewer beyond simply experiencing the thriller.
It also comes from a deeply personal place for showrunner and co-creator (along with star Steve Martin) John Hoffman, whose childhood friend was killed off a year before he began work on the series.
“I would go back and forth in time in this relationship, looking away all the time [between us] and trying to fill in those blanks to figure out what led him to be [dead] on the floor,” says Hoffman. “Those memories were all under the narration here.”
The second season of “Russian Doll” is about literal time travel, but the undercurrent of the Netflix show is the emotional connections between generations. “If Season 1 was ‘Groundhog Day’, then Season 2 is about how [Nadia] begins the quantum leap,” says showrunner and star Natasha Lyonne, adding that for Nadia, time travel is an emotional escape. “We ask him to appear for [a] relationship and easily finds this way out. …It’s about how you have to come to terms with the truth of who you are before you become present in your current life.
Emotions aside, the technique of using these extended side stories also has the added benefit of building tension and suspense into the stories. “Yellowjackets” (Showtime) begins with teenage girls stranded in the woods after a plane crash in 1996, then jumps to 2021 without resolving their time there, then bounces back again. Throughout it all is the mystery of what happened to the students.
“By having two or 10 timelines or different viewpoints, you can use all of those opportunities to develop patterns that create tension,” says Ashley Lyle, co-creator and co-showrunner with her husband Bart Nickerson. “It’s really rich from a storytelling perspective to take a character and tell the story of the different times in their life, how they’re fundamentally different – and fundamentally the same.”
There’s another hidden benefit to these kinds of complex stories: they’re not designed for those who split their attention between screens. “We’re trying to make TV for people who are attentive and don’t half-watch on their phones,” says “Life & Beth” (Hulu) showrunner Daniel Powell. “Beth” oscillates between her main character as a teenager and an adult, with plots based on star Amy Schumer’s teenage diaries. “It’s for an audience that wants to get deeply involved.”
This struggle is ongoing for show makers, who try to present complex and nuanced stories but can be pushed back from within. “There’s such pressure to spoon feed information in the streamer world because there’s a terror that if someone in the audience is slightly confused, they’ll stop watching,” Somerville explains. “I love when a show trusts me to do the math.”
“Television, much more than cinema, is a direct conversation with the public”, explains Lyonne. “People have their cell phones and they’re not afraid to use them. The audience must choose to stay in the carousel.