Now — or when? Tricks of time keep TV shows hopping

[15 October 2008]

By Gail Pennington

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

“You don’t screw with time,” Mama Petrelli warned Peter - technically, Future Peter - in the season premiere of “Heroes.”

Peter didn’t heed the warning, and TV producers are ignoring it, too, using tricks of time to rev up storylines and add excitement to tired genres.

For television, embracing the fourth dimension can mean everything from setting a show entirely in the past (“Mad Men”) or future (“Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”), to outright leaps, as on “Heroes,” to flashes forward and backward, a la “Lost.”

Flashbacks were hardly a new dramatic device when “Lost” began telling its stories that way in 2004. But those flashbacks turned out to be a smokescreen hiding the pivotal role time would play on “Lost,” where clocks are useless, the past regularly invades the present and characters jump around in their own circular histories.

All has not yet been revealed, but since the 2007 decision to end the series in May 2010, “Lost” has continued on two timelines, one in the present (rather, the past) and the other in the future (or potentially the present).

Marc Cherry watched “Lost” play with time and was emboldened. The “Desperate Housewives” creator was so impressed with the “bold stroke” by “Lost” executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, he said, that he thought, “Let’s just go forward in time. Let me change everyone’s lives completely.”

So fans who tuned in for the Season 5 premiere of “Desperate Housewives” found the Scavo kids all grown up and Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria Parker) a frumpy housewife with two little girls. An opening voice-over made it clear that the story had jumped ahead five years.

On a serialized drama, “The soap tends to build up,” Cherry told TV critics this summer, “and I wanted to get back to where we were that very first season where it’s just the problems of some ordinary women and they were small and relatable. ... I thought it would be a good chance to do something interesting and give everyone some challenges.”

Rather than being upset that they were “aging,” the “Housewives” say they relished the change.

“I felt like it was a reset button and we got to start from scratch and explore more things for my character and all of us,” Parker said.

Teri Hatcher, whose Susan Mayer is now divorced from the love of her life, Mike Delfino, finds that “the five-year jump is allowing her to have more strength than we’ve seen. I feel like I’m playing and shooting and filming a Susan who is stronger than any Susan that we’ve seen.”

The catch is that the flash-forward required recasting some of the younger “Desperate Housewives” characters. On daytime soaps, children often jump ahead in age, suffering from SORAS - “soap opera rapid-aging syndrome.”

At five years older, the three Scavo boys had to be recast as teens, and Susan’s daughter, Julie (Andrea Bowen), has grown up and left home. But Bowen will still make occasional appearances, and “I think we’re hoping to see some of those (Scavo) kids in flashbacks,” executive producer Bob Daily said.

Don’t expect “Housewives” ever to return to its past, however. “There will be some bouncing, but for the most part, we’re going five years and committing to it,” Daily said. “I think the fun for us and the audience is revealing in dribs and drabs what you missed in those five-year periods.”

“Desperate Housewives” might also have looked to the CW’s “One Tree Hill” for inspiration. A four-year jump ahead, bypassing the characters’ college years, revitalized that show’s plots and its ratings.

Matthew Weiner set AMC’s sophomore sensation “Mad Men” in the 1960s, re-creating that era to the last detail, to tell a story of “the dichotomy between the way we are on the outside and the way we’re perceived.” He was also personally obsessed with the time, which “is seen as repressed, but it’s really a culturally very open period,” a “Golden Age for the United States.”

But Weiner wasn’t satisfied to start his story in 1960 and let it play out. Instead, he moved the second season ahead, subtly, by 15 months and plans to continue advancing time in future seasons to accentuate how fast the world was changing.

“I would like to cover this period of people’s lives, and that’s a five-year plan and not a 10-year plan,” he said. In addition, skipping ahead more than a year let him “start the story fresh,” with “all these events that happened in between that will provide an additional storytelling energy.”

ABC’s “Life on Mars,” adapted from a British series, aims for “a whole new way of telling cop stories” by taking a New York cop from 2008 and planting him on “Mars” - meaning 1973.

Attuned to modern crime-solving, Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara) has been thrust into a time before cell phones and DNA evidence, and “it will be a great source of conflict,” said executive producer Josh Applebaum.

The British series, which ran just 16 episodes, wound up with the lead character turning out to be in a coma. But that felt unsatisfying to producers of the American version.

“We are changing the mythology,” Applebaum said. “Each week, we’ll be deepening that mystery of what’s going on with him. ... Has he traveled through time, has he lost his mind or is he in a coma? For us, there are many, many more options than that.”

Added executive producer Andre Nemic: “Though, to be clear, it is not a time-travel show. We are not going back and forth between 2008 and 1973.”

Like “Mad Men,” “Life on Mars” can be viewed as a commentary on the present day. “The great thing about 1973 is that there are a lot of similarities to where we are now,” Applebaum said. “We were trying to get out of a war in which we were embedded. We had an unpopular president. There were (high) gas prices. It was a tumultuous time.”

Fans of time-travel mythology might wonder how, if Sam is living in the same place he lived 35 years before, he might “run into somebody he knows (and) prevent his own birth or something?”

“We deal with that in brushstrokes,” Applebaum said, “but we actually really are trying to stay away from that. Again, it’s not a time-travel show with the exception of the fact that a guy’s woken up and he’s in 1973. It’s not about jumping back and forth. It’s not about the butterfly effect and if I change something, yeah, I won’t be born. ... Our mythology is, frankly, much deeper than that.”

CBS’ canceled “Swingtown” was also set in the ‘70s, and David Milch (“NYPD Blue”) is currently working on a series about New York City police in the 1970s. For “Lost,” heading into Season 5 in February, time is crucial in many ways. After setting an end for the series, “We now know exactly how much time we have left to tell our story and (are) able to blast toward that ending,” Cuse said. “I think that really completely changed our storytelling approach.”

He and Lindelof have “known a lot of what we wanted to do there for a long time, so the challenge is how do we make this season engaging and exciting and put us in a place where everyone is really excited about the final season?”

So, with those storylines running concurrently in the past and present, when might they merge?

Cuse said, cryptically: “By the end.”

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