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A Taxonomy of TV Time-Hopping

From Doctor Who to This is Us and Ordinary Joe, TV can’t seem to quit setting its shows in multiple timelines.
  • Overheard in every writers’ room in Hollywood: “Let’s do the time-hop again!” (Photos: AMC, NBC, Netflix)
    Overheard in every writers’ room in Hollywood: “Let’s do the time-hop again!” (Photos: AMC, NBC, Netflix)

    One of the great gifts of television is that it provides the opportunity to tell a story over multiple episodes and seasons. As serialized TV has become more structurally audacious, individual shows have increasingly explored various perspectives and vantage points, most prominently in recent years through the use of multiple timelines.

    From sitcoms to dramas to post-apocalyptic thrillers, all kinds of shows have explored the concept of time hopping over the years. Today there are entire series (some would argue too many), where stories set in the past, present, and future intermingle as part of a larger whole.

    No two time-hopping shows are the same, but many do share common elements. Grab your Peak TV bingo card and see how many of the following you recognize:

    The Flashback

    The TV time-hop in its oldest and most familiar form, the flashback predates television as a narrative device, and has been employed going back to the medium’s earliest days. Most often used to provide backstory for a character or a group of characters, flashbacks can take the shape of a scene or a series of scenes within a single episode (see: Orange Is the New Black) or entire episodes in of themselves.

    One of the most intriguing recent examples of a whole-episode flashback is the Walking Dead episode "Here's Negan," which gave viewers a look at who the terrifying villain was before and at the beginning of the apocalypse. The episode was able to humanize a hated character, and served as return to form for the once-floundering AMC series.

    Flashbacks aren’t limited to drama: 30 Rock frequently used brief flashbacks as a punchline, as have shows like Arrested Development and How I Met Your Mother. Likewise, David Letterman’s “CBS Mailbag” often utilized flashbacks to answer viewer questions to comedic effect.

    Flashbacks can also be found in reality TV, whether to refresh viewers on events that we’ve already seen, or to fill us in on something we missed. (Survivor used this trick to great effect in a recent episode.)

    The Flashforward

    A kissing cousin of the flashback, the flashforward has become increasingly popular in recent years, with many shows opening their pilot episodes with a flash-forward that jumps the viewer into a scene that occurs later in the show’s timeline. Examples include Little Fires Everywhere, which opens with its protagonists’ home on fire (an event that doesn’t occur until the show’s final episode), and Better Call Saul, which frequently flashes forward to show Jimmy/Saul/Gene working at a Cinnabon at some point in the future, after the events of Breaking Bad.

    Flashforwards are similarly used in docuseries, which, like their narrative counterparts, often begin with a flashforward to a pivotal moment before doubling back to tell the story of how that moment came to be.

    Back and Forth

    This high-concept narrative device sees shows tell their stories over multiple timelines, with the use of makeup, prosthetics, and CGI to age (or de-age) actors and/or the casting of entirely different actors to fit the desired timeline. Best exemplified by This is Us, scenes from different time periods are often intertwined in a single episode, with backdrops, actors, style, and stories changing in kind. While the main characters deal with present-day conflicts, challenges, and triumphs, fans get an understanding of events that may have influenced their actions, reactions, and choices both now and in the future.

    Similarly, the NBC comedy Young Rock, which tells a fictionalized story of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's childhood and rise to fame, looks at the moments and people who influenced the wrestler-cum-actor through a backstory told at three different times in his life: as a young child, a teenager, and in college. Johnson himself narrates from the future, with the series’ conceit being that he’s sharing his story as he runs for President in the year 2032.

    The Permanent Time Jump

    So far, we’ve looked at shows that use flashbacks and flashforwards to augment their storytelling within a static present, but what about the shows that permanently advance their “present” ahead a few years? As my colleague Joe Reid wrote for Primetimer earlier this year, the classic TV Time Jump is often used as a reset, a way to open a show up to new storylines that can only come with the passage of time.

    Such was the case with The Walking Dead, which allowed for a progression among the main characters after having lost Rick Grimes. In the NBC medical drama New Amsterdam, a time jump of several years allowed Max to grieve the loss of his wife over a sufficient amount of time before opening the door for a new romance with Dr. Helen.

    And after graduating its characters from high school, The CW's Riverdale skipped ahead seven years (no makeup needed in this case, as the show’s actors were already in their 20s when the series began). This created a refreshed angle for the show: the characters were no longer dealing with high school crushes and entry-level jobs or going to school, but had careers and a bit more life experience to help accommodate some more adult storylines.

    Parallel Timelines

    Most closely associated with the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow film Sliding Doors, this narrative device presents the same character living different versions of their life in a split narrative.

    Episodes of Malcolm in the Middle, Community and Frasier utilized this concept, while the "Sliding Doors" episode of Broad City presented two versions of the day the duo met: one in which they miss a train and end up spending the day together, and another where they catch the train and do not (immediately) meet.

    The NBC drama Ordinary Joe sees James Wolk portray the same character living three parallel timelines, based on what he decides to do after graduating college. In one, he marries his college girlfriend and becomes a nurse. In another, he follows in his father's footsteps and joins the police force, and in the third he follows his passion and becomes a professional musician.

    Time Travel

    It’s here where we enter the realm of the supernatural. Rather than jumping the viewer from one timeline to another, these shows jump their characters from one timeline to another, Back to the Future-style, with the goal of changing the past to adjust the future.

    Quantum Leap memorably starred Scott Bakula as a man who leaps through space and time, inhabiting different people's bodies at different times in order to correct historical mistakes, while the premise of Continuum was that a terrorist group travels back in time with the plan of starting a war.

    After Felicity received an order for additional episodes in its final season, producers sent Felicity (Keri Russell) back in time so that she could choose Noel (Scott Foley) instead of Ben (Scott Speedman), in the the process saving Noel's life.

    In Travelers, people travel back in the future and take over different human bodies to prevent them from dying, with the ultimate goal of changing history. Doctor Who is arguably the most popular and longest running series of this ilk, with the titular character focused on traveling back and forth in time to fight monsters and ultimately save the world.

    The Time Loop (aka the do-over)

    The concept made famous by the film Groundhog Day has taken various forms on TV, the common element being people forced to live the events of the same time period more than once, and often over and over again.

    Episodes of Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Mindy Project have all utilized this conceit, while shows like Tru Calling and Hounded owe their entire premise the concept. Similarly, Russian Doll sees Nadia, its protagonist, caught in a time loop where her death is inevitable, but the cause of death varies.

    Other variants include Westworld, where the hosts are programmed to repeat the same behaviors each day (while the world around them does not), and Lucifer, where those sent to Hell are forced to relive the same tortuous scenario over and over again in an endless loop.

    The Jeremy Bearimy

    Leave it to the always inventive Good Place to take the notion of time to the next level. In the show's third season, Michael (Ted Danson) reveals that time in the afterlife doesn't just move forward or backward; it also moves up and down before returning to its starting point, following a path represented by the words "Jeremy Bearimy."

    As Michael explains, time can even exit outside itself in the afterlife — hence the dot above the letter "I" in Bearimy. Checkmate and match, The Good Place.

    Christine Persaud has been writing for close to two decades and freelancing for the last eight, with her entertainment work featured in Digital Trends, Screen Rant, Reviewed Canada, and others. Follow her on Twitter @christineTechCA.

    TOPICS: This Is Us, Better Call Saul, Broad City, Charmed (1998 series), Cominuum, Community, Doctor Who, Frasier, The Good Place, Hounded, Little Fires Everywhere, Lucifer, Malcolm in the Middle, The Mindy Project, Orange Is the New Black, Ordinary Joe, Quantum Leap, Riverdale, Russian Doll, Survivor, Travelers, Tru Calling, The Walking Dead, Westworld, Young Rock