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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Nonlinear shows are creating a new age of TV, and I can't stop watching them

Television shows are Mad Libs to me. I turn on a cable TV show, sit there and try to finish the character’s sentences, fully aware that I am the worst type of person to watch TV with. Correctly guessing the ending to a show can be so satisfying. Nothing is as fulfilling as saying out loud exactly what a television character says with the same timing and beat. But on the other hand, when I am wrong, the results are devastating — yet so humbling.

Realizing that this is one of the most annoying things a human could do, I turned my attention to what it is about the shows that keep me dumbfounded. My kryptonite: nonlinear timelines. This storytelling tool allows for multiple story lines that add another dimension to the plot. It is a combination of long flashbacks, backstories and sometimes even snapshots of future events. When it comes to holding on to the element of suspense, television writers use a variety of techniques.

Flashbacks have been used throughout cinematic history to reveal information about characters that defines their present storyline. But now, writers are using nonlinear storylines to keep viewers on their toes and sometimes even confuse them. The confusion element comes into play especially when viewers cannot tell when scenes are happening in relation to the present plot. In the coming years, nonlinear timelines may become even more popular with the success of shows like “This is Us” and “Westworld.”

In the NBC series “This is Us,” viewers see a substantial range of the character’s lives through flashbacks that frame several time periods. The show keeps fans intrigued by going back and forth from past to present. Just when you find yourself getting bored, the story moves to another time and sparks your interest once again. Viewers ultimately know what is going to happen to some of the characters, making watching the show not a matter of “What will happen?” but rather “How did that happen?”

A similar case happens in HBO’s “Westworld” but with more intensity. The robot characters in this series do not show signs of aging, making it hard to decipher what time the actions take place. Only the more attentive viewers can figure out where in the show’s timeline scenes are taking place. And viewers ca not exactly trust that anyone who looks human is not a robot, adding an additional layer of confusion as to where in time certain actions are taking place.

Even if you pride yourself on paying attention to each timeline switch, a plethora of Reddit threads and YouTube videos exist to explain what the heck just happened. Nonlinear plots may be the next big thing because it gives viewers enough information to get the wheels in their head turning without giving away major plot lines. And with so much content for us to watch, we might tune in to get to the bottom of questions we have been tweeting about.

Although these shows are not the only shows to use nonlinear timelines, “This Is Us” and “Westworld” are recent examples of what TV shows may look like in the future. The new trend may be viewers being kept in the dark as to when things are taking place. The jaw-dropping plot twists in “Grey’s Anatomy” will not suffice anymore. The steady, chronological order of events will not cut it.

Viewers love to speculate and conspire about what is next for a show. Nonlinear or multiple timelines allow for more fans to wonder about the events of a show and how things came to be. As with any show, information on characters is withheld to create suspense, but now we are given the knowledge and we have to figure out where it fits in the timeline. These TV shows are puzzles that need to be solved and they are going to keep us coming back each week for the foreseeable future.

Jackie DeFreitas is a UF journalism junior. Her column appears on Wednesdays.

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