Back to the Future with ‘The Event’ and ‘The Real Housewives of D.C.’

At the end of a recent episode of The Event, the mysterious leader of an otherworldly group of visitors tells the American president that her people have been waiting “66 years” and their patience is running out. On the other hand, I’ve only been waiting a few hours to find out what the ‘event’ is and my patience ran out around episode two.

The Event is part Lost and part FlashForward. The group of mystery people alludes to Heroes, but without the charm of a villainous Sylar and the conspiracy aspect places it in the category of 24 but without the fierceness of a Jack Bauer. I might have more patience for this identity crisis if it wasn’t for the show’s reliance on back story flashbacks.

In the first two episodes, the action is in the present. Then it’s two years ago. Then we’re back to the present. Then it’s three months ago. This structural whiplash is not intriguing. It’s just painful. Unlike Lost, where back stories were both interesting stand alone narratives and clever connections that enhanced the primary action, the flashbacks on The Event are simply points of information. So far, the series’ ‘time shifting for exposition’ strategy does little more than interrupt the story’s momentum.

If The Event wants to successfully take license with its time line, it would do well to learn a lesson from the recent D.C. installment of The Real Housewives. The series contains so much time shifting that the Bravo team has basically discovered a new level of the space/time continuum but with one important difference: unlike The Event’s explanation flashbacks, the Housewives’ time jumping heightens, rather than stalls, the show’s drama.

For example, in the second to last episode of the first season, a few of the housewives discuss fellow housewife Michaele Salahi’s alleged financial problems. The scene takes place in a restaurant on a snowy day but it is cut with a scene of Michaele and her husband traveling in a limo to an expensive country inn on a bright sunny afternoon. They talk about their upcoming gourmet dinner and the champagne they look forward to drinking.

If you missed the weather clue that these two events did not happen on the same day, the writers of “The Reliable Source”, a Washington Post blog that recaps the show, did not. They noted on 1 October that the first snowfall in D.C. at the time of filming was in early December and Michaele was a guest at the inn in September. Yet, the juxtaposition of these two scenes sets them up as happening simultaneously. The result is dramatic tension as Michaele is made to seem frivolous and suspect while her fellow housewives form a Greek chorus commenting on her spending habits.

A limo ride in The Event

It’s a tricky time-shift editorial by Bravo, but it accomplishes an important task: it brings the audience into the story. Instead of watching the limo scene as a lifestyles of the rich and famous moment, the viewer might now wonder: “Is Michaele a con artist masquerading as D.C. Barbie?” In contrast, The Event asks the viewer: “What is the event?” but the boring expository flashbacks push the answer closer and closer to: “Who cares?”

While it might be tempting to dismiss the comparison I’m making because The Event is a fictional drama, the argument is less apples and oranges than it appears. The D.C. Housewives series is clearly not an objective account of the glamorous social lives of women who live on the Beltway. Michaele was established as the show’s villain from the beginning. When she became the White House ‘party crasher’ while the series was in production, her status as enemy number one was guaranteed to drive the narrative.

Perhaps it is this ‘stranger than fiction’ element that gives Bravo license to play with the show’s time line. Or maybe it’s disingenuous storytelling. Whatever your view, Bravo does one thing right: it knows that if you are going to ask your audience to perform detective work or minor math calculations to keep track of where they are in the narrative, there better be a satisfying payoff.