TV shows in their purest form offer an escape into another world. Suddenly, however, there is a mini-trend where shows are serving up multiple versions of the same world. It’s enough to give a viewer whiplash. I’m trying to figure out if it is lazy writing or brilliant twisty storytelling. Let’s look at three shows that are using this device right now before we decide.
Be warned: spoilers abound.
The core mythology of Fringe posits that overlapping worlds share the same space. The worlds themselves are largely similar, but with key differences (such as the intact World Trade Center we saw at the end of season one). There are people who have opened portals between them. It is really really bad to open portals. Even worse, one of the main characters – the lovable but stark raving mad Walter Bishop – has used the portals to replace the dead son of his world with a living counterpart from another world.
FlashForward also has an intriguing alternate reality hook. Everyone in the world blacks out at the same moment. While they are unconscious, they see what they are doing many months in the future. Except it becomes clear that what they see may not have to come true. It may be that there are multiple possible outcomes for any given action in any given moment. Yeah, that kind of makes my head hurt too.
Lost of course is the granddaddy of the serialized shows, having lasted a whole five seasons (which is like thirty-five seasons in procedural show years). They started with straight-up flashbacks that showed us the characters before they came to the island. Then, in a fit of hubris that paid off, they switched to flashforwards that showed some characters after they got off the island. Now, in its final season, we have flash-sideways, where we are seeing characters in a completely different world at the same time as the events happening on the island. It is very enjoyable, but also completely baffling.
Here’s my worry with the alternate reality thing. The writers really have to know what they’re doing to make it work. It’s like time travel. Once you open that door, anything is possible because you can always travel back or forward in time and change everything (which has been the true downfall of shows like Heroes). Alternate realities provide similar escape hatches for writers.
On Lost, the writing/producing team has earned the right to dabble in the flash sideways alternate reality. I’ve trusted them for years now and have yet to be let down (even when they veered into the dangerous time travel territory). So I’ll go along with the premise, even if I don’t have the energy to play connect the dots with every character in the two worlds. I’m not ready to pronounce the final season a success, but I also would never tar the alternate reality concept lazy here. And the April 6 episode was one of the best yet, providing a tantalizing glimpse of the show’s end game.
I am concerned about both FlashForward and Fringe, but Fringe has the edge because it has done better legwork in my opinion. The alternate reality concept has been grounded in character-driven action. Walter’s deep grief led him to violate the boundary between the worlds. That is powerful stuff. I hope they play it out to a logical conclusion and don’t let themselves off the hook.
FlashForward feels the most in danger of using the alternate reality concept as a storytelling crutch that allows for a complete reboot. The ratings for the show are disappointing. Characters are already talking about another blackout which could be code for let’s-toss-the-first-season-and-start-over.
I guess for me it really comes down to characters over concept. That’s why I love Lost, feel an inkling of trust in Fringe and suffer from great trepidation about FlashForward. The Lost characters are like family at this point. On Fringe, the main characters all feel unique and fully drawn. FlashForward, even after nearly a full season, still is populated by too many shorthand cookie cutters for my taste.
Of course, in this not-so-alternate-reality of network TV scheduling, it doesn’t look like it will matter what I think about FlashForward – it is all but canceled. Fringe, on the other hand, has basically been renewed, so I hope my trust isn’t misplaced.
And the producers of Lost are going to wish they had their own flash-sideways if they screw up the upcoming series finale. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I think it will continue to be the unattainable ideal that these other shows need to live up to.