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A Brief History of the TV Time Jump

Riverdale isn't the first show to partake in temporal shenanigans.
  • Desperate Housewives, Family Ties, The American, Lost, and Parks and Recreation are just a few of the shows that have employed the time-jump. (Photos: ABC, CBS, NBC, FX)
    Desperate Housewives, Family Ties, The American, Lost, and Parks and Recreation are just a few of the shows that have employed the time-jump. (Photos: ABC, CBS, NBC, FX)

    This week's Riverdale sees the show embarking on perhaps its most ambitious gambit yet: a seven-year time jump that will take its characters past their college years and into what promises to be a highly dramatic future. Archie is a war veteran, Jughead is an author struggling with writer's block, Veronica is married to some new dude, and Betty Cooper is an FBI agent and trauma survivor, straight out of The Silence of the Lambs.

    Riverdale has never been a show that's afraid to take a big swing; no show with this many musical episodes could ever be called timid. Still, the time jump is a big deal, even if it's not all that rare on TV anymore. In recent years serialized TV shows have increasingly employed time jumps to either goose a stagnant narrative, maneuver around some of the recurring pitfalls of long-running shows, or tie things up with a more profound finale. And although the tactic to jump ahead in time has always been available to the makers of television, the proliferation of time jumps is a uniquely 21st century phenomenon.

    While it wasn't the very first show to ever employ a time jump, one that seemed to spark the trend in the 2000s was the Alias Season 2 finale that saw CIA agent Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) survive hand-to-hand combat with an assassin masquerading as her best friend, only to wake up in Hong Kong and discover that two years have passed and that Vaughn (Michael Vartan) thought she was dead and has married someone else. End credits, see you next season. Besides sending every Alias fan into an absolute frenzy for the entire summer, J.J. Abrams and company were able to crank up the stakes just as it seemed Sydney was getting a handle on things. Abrams by then was already familiar with pulling off time-hopping stunts, having thrust the final season of Felicity into a gambit that involved not just a time jump but time travel.

    Several years later, another Abrams-affiliated show, Lost employed the flash forward a few different times in order to raise the stakes. Once was in the legendary Season 3 finale, where what we'd assumed was a flashback to beardo Jack (Matthew Fox) being upset about something or other turned into beardo future Jack being upset about needing to go back to the island. Oh, and Abrams time-jumped again for the final season of Fringe. Man loves a time jump almost as much as he loves a lens flare.

    The time jump as a reset is probably best epitomized by Battlestar Galactica in 2006. In the sci-fi show's second season finale, with the fleet seemingly safe to settle on a new (if desolate) planet, with a new (if questionably elected) leader, the narrative jumped ahead over a year, to find the settlements a frigid wasteland, the new President Batlar (James Callis) a corrupt lout, and — surprise — the Cylons returning to invade and colonize the humans. It was a thorough reset for the show, setting up a dizzying new array of stakes.

    Between the Alias, Battlestar Galactica and Lost flash-forwards, the template had been set, at least for genre shows. Then non-genre shows began jumping forward. Like Desperate Housewives, which jumped ahead five years into the future at the end of Season 4, for no specific reason other than to shake things up. That's the kind of flex that a show as big as Desperate Housewives could pull off. More recently, cable shows have used the time-jump in order to introduce a new dynamic between their characters and let the audience scramble to catch up to the new normal. This was the case on Halt and Catch Fire, which jumped ahead four years just as the professional partnership between Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna (Kerry Bishé) had fractured. When the narrative resumed, the two were long estranged and needed to find a way back to each other. On The Americans, a time jump also helped to accentuate the estrangement between Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell), after the former got out of the spy biz. In both cases, the shows were also able to use the time jump to fast-forward to more interesting and applicable moments in tech or geopolitical history, respectively.

    One common reason to flash forward is to deal with characters who've just had a baby. TV shows — sitcoms especially — have historically struggled after their lead characters have babies, left with the dilemma of ignoring the kid (then your leads look like bad parents) or focusing way too much of the show on the kid (realistic, but not what we signed up for). Family Ties, Parks and Recreation, Jane the Virgin, and Grey's Anatomy are just a few shows where time jumps have gotten babies to the more workable toddler stages. The Walking Dead did this most effectively, jumping ahead six years midway through Season 9. This was partly a reset after the departure of Andrew Lincoln as series lead Rick Grimes, but it also allowed Rick's baby girl Judith to grow up to grade-school age, which in the universe of The Walking Dead meant she was old enough to be a lil' zombie slayer.

    Often shows will flash forward in their series finales in order to provide a more holistic kind of closure for their characters. This was how Parks and Recreation sent Leslie Knope off into the sunset, with a series of flashes further and further into the future, ultimately implying that Leslie became President of the United States. Mike Schur's other show, The Good Place, flashed forward to the eventual deaths (or whatever) of its main characters, a gambit borrowed from the legendary Six Feet Under finale, although that was more a series of flash forwards than a time jump. Ditto for the final scenes of Veep, set at Selina Meyer's funeral. Mad About You did a flash forward for its original series finale that doubled as a get-past-the-baby-years gambit (albeit one that came verrrry late in the game).

    Perhaps the most common usage for a time jump lately has been to get shows about teens past their awkward college years. This has consistently been a problem for TV shows. Buffy the Vampire Slayer used the supernatural as a metaphor for high school, but when the time came for the characters to graduate to college, the show spent a season and a half awkwardly trying to find its footing before finally just ignoring college altogether. This happens a lot, and it makes sense: unless a show wants to opt for a complete reset surrounding one or maybe two characters, the college years require way too much splintering of friend groups to remain realistic for a group of high school friends. This is why shows like One Tree Hill, Glee and Pretty Little Liars just fast-forwarded through all (or most) of their college years. The fringe benefit is that cast members, who are usually way too old to be playing high-schoolers anyway, can now play a lot closer to their actual ages.

    This is the gamble Riverdale is taking this season, and given the very adult situations the Riverdale teens often find themselves in, it's likely they'll handle the transition just fine.

    Riverdale makes its seven-year time with an episode titled "Purgatorio," premiering on The CW February 10th at 9:00 PM ET.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Riverdale, Alias, The Americans, Battlestar Galactica (2004), Desperate Housewives, Family Ties, Felicity, Glee, The Good Place, Halt and Catch Fire, Jane the Virgin, Lost, One Tree Hill, Parks and Recreation, Pretty Little Liars, The Walking Dead