Blood and tears clash on the face of the terrified and bewildered man on screen. He’s cradling a woman’s body in a burning building, fighting the realisation that he cannot save who we understand is the love of his life, and that he has dwindling seconds to get himself to safety before the floor collapses. The fear and fury of the scene is visceral. This programme is going to be pretty thrilling, clearly.
The screen goes black, and next we see an idyllic scene of a child flying a kite by a stream on a sunny autumn day. An adult couple sits on a nearby patch of grass, looking on with a mixture of happiness and mild concern that they may soon be drying off little Alfie who’s already getting in a tangle close to the water’s edge. They laugh together contentedly. They are deeply in love.
We recognise them as the couple from the burning building. On the screen, words emerge: four weeks earlier.
Scripted television drama is one of the crowning achievements of human entertainment. Bountiful joy can be had piecing together the dubious motives of dodgy coppers in a three-part BBC drama, or marvelling at the machinations of Francis Underwood in the remarkable remake of House of Cards (or indeed those of Francis Urquhart in the British original). Quality acting and well thought-out scriptwriting are hallmarks of a species that understands baking shows, and people watching people watching television, are the swiftest route to mental bankruptcy.
And, true to our species’ habit of fucking up anything good before we get too used to it, there’s a man-made virus spreading through our TV dramas. Why do producers, for I suspect it’s producers rather than writers to blame for this, feel the need to extract a scene from the middle of the programme and jam it at the front, before spinning us back a number of weeks or months to the ‘start’ of the story? Can we not begin at the beginning? Is linear storytelling a sin now?
I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t find it overly taxing to follow a story from the beginning to the end, provided it’s not shit. It’s not vital that I understand that there will be a scene involving death and flames at some point in the future in order to keep me glued; I’m no longer a teenage boy, desperate for explosions. I don’t need you to tell me that the wife’s going to snuff it later in some bid to soften the blow of her demise. I want the blow – that’s half the bloody point.
More programmes do this than don’t nowadays, I’m sure of it. It’s as though a directive has been handed down that dramas must Sam Beckett the hell out of a timeline in order to be taken seriously, because shows that doggedly stick to forward-only plotting go by another name: soaps. You don’t see Dot Cotton taking a circular saw to her latest victim before it spools back ten days to when that victim refused to bow as he walked his dog past Ethel’s grave, and that’s because soaps are shit.
The biggest concern in any programme that leaps back early on is that it’ll be stuffed with flashbacks, which is where blame probably shifts to the writer. The writer decides the average viewer is too dimwitted to follow a plot from beginning to end, connecting the threads with their own imagination and understanding the actions of the characters in the order they happen.
The solution is to gambol back and forth to explain to the simple minded how the scene they just watched came about. You just saw Sam shoot Dave, but you’re not sure why? Let’s go back two years to when Sam comes home early to find a dripping Sheila bent over the workbench in the garage as Dave wipes himself on the towel Sam uses to polish his fishing trophies. The guilty couple don’t see him, Sam creeps out, lets his resentment brew over 24 scheming months, but obviously if we’d shown you the shag first you’d have wondered why Sam bothered. Could have kicked him witless there and then Sam – why the wait? Keen eye for the dramatic, mate. Oh, righto.
Of course, they can’t keep putting ‘six months earlier’ on the screen every time they hurtle back to fill a plot hole. This is where special effects come in. Perhaps the flashbacks will have a certain glow around the edges, suggesting happier times involving John Lewis picnic hampers and carefree penetration. Maybe they’ll apply a sepia tone to the lens, making it clear that this is THE PAST you’re looking at, when everything was a little more brown. If the budget’s more Channel 5 than HBO, they’ll have to go with wigs, beards and youthful clothing to make it plain these are scenes from a long time before the limbs start coming off and police in pairs are sent solemnly to elderly parents’ doors.
Of course we find out that the man in the burning building leaves his wife’s body there, but it turns out she didn’t die, she burns a little but never forgives him for legging it. She turns up years later as the girlfriend of a powerful Norwegian business tycoon with a murky army of security contractors at his beck and call and our hero ends up scarpering from bears on Svalbard before eventually meeting a mysterious stranger who helps him get the girl, kill the baddies and save the entire planet.
But that’s the end and you can do what the hell you want with that. All I want is a return to start-middle-end TV before producers, writers, directors and the bloody ‘key grip’ started getting cocky and buggering about with the formula. If it’s done cleverly in a way that changes the story then fine, but randomly plonking a later scene at the beginning needs to stop. You wouldn’t like it if I told you at the start that Gazza will be the fourth evictee from the celebrity jungle and will proceed to go on an alcohol-fuelled rampage that ends the lives of both Anne Robinson and Flava from Blazin’ Squad, would you?
All right, bad example.