Category Archives: Off the Air

Lost in a Fairytale: Once Upon a Time and the Flashback Trend on TV

It was a pretty surprising moment for the show. Not as shocking as a death or pregnancy or any of the many events that usually make up May sweeps. But still, it was very surprising when in the second season premier of Once Upon a Time, a show that had become rather formulaic by the end of its first season, actually changed from something very procedural into a more serialized narrative. And it was in that moment that it became clear that the show could probably survive into more seasons to come.

The show, built on the conceit that fairytale characters are real and that a curse has brought them into our world, relied on a flashback formula during its first season to help explain that often confusing concept. The fact that the local schoolteacher is Snow White, the mayor is the evil queen and a pawnbroker is Rumplestiltskin is much more easily explained by showing the same actors in gowns and crowns, fighting off monsters and magic. And as the show veered from the accepted versions of fairytales that everyone knows, the flashbacks helped to create a world that was unique to the show, and that had its own rules. In essence, Once Upon a Time spent half of its first season on some very glitzy exposition.

But when the curse was broken at the end of season one and suddenly everyone remembers who they all really are, the time for explaining how and why was over. The time for the past was over, as the future was so uncertain for the characters. But how to change something that had worked for a whole year?

The premier did indeed flash between the fairy tale world and the real one, only not in a way that the show had ever done before. In fairyland we see Sleeping Beauty, a brand new character, awakened by her handsome prince who is accompanied by Mulan. They encounter a hooded phantom who marks his victims with a metal disk and then sucks out their souls. Aurora’s prince is marked and dies.

It all seems a little irrelevant until the phantom appears back in the real world. Although it still seemed a little unnecessary. Introducing three new characters just to explain what the scary hooded monster did? He was scary and hooded and so logic says he probably sucked out souls. But when in the real world they get rid of the phantom by banishing him back to fairyland, and the two female leads with him, they land right next to Aurora and Mulan. It wasn’t a flashback; it was a peek into the not-so-distant future. The show had introduced three new characters to move the plot forward, not back. And suddenly a whole world of possibilities emerges.

The flashback formula was made most popular by Lost, and when you think back to the first season of that show, you can understand why it was so good. It made a high concept, serialized show more procedural, and easier to watch and understand. It kept the show from having the entire series on a beach. The audience could see how the plane crash had changed the characters. It was a great way to bring those characters together.

But in that show, and others, the brilliance of the flashbacks just didn’t last as characters joined cults, got married randomly, and got strange tattoos in Thailand. And when the flashbacks started to falter the show started flashing forward and eventually “sideways” into the increasingly absurd. These scenes weren’t telling the audience anything about the characters or the plot of the present. They were just there to be there, because that is what the show had always done.

But now Once Upon a Time is not cursed to the same fate as Lost. It doesn’t have to flashback endlessly to fairytale characters who don’t last more than one episode, or create increasingly absurd back stories for the characters. And they can continue to flashback, occasionally. It never hurts to know more about the characters, even if we think we already know everything about Snow White. But inevitably the story matters more than the procedure.

Of course the showis still struggling with the transition. A few episodes in this season have gotten a little heady, sporting three separate plots in a short forty-three minute episode: the real world, the current fairyland, and a flashback. But as the stories converge over the season and the stakes are raised, the show ultimately has dropped the flashbacks in episodes where they weren’t needed. It has chosen instead to focus on the here and now, where all of the action is happening. This is a lesson Lost never learned.


Off the Air: Battlestar Galactica and Lost are Actually the Same Show

I watch a lot of TV, but I missed some classics by virtue of being too young, too uninformed, or too cable-less when they were on the air. As I try to correct this error I will fill you in on observations, reactions, and musings on old and great TV. 

Okay so they’re not exactly the same. One is about a war between the last of  humanity and their robot creations and the other is about forty-odd people stranded on an island after a plane crash. One is about space travel and take place in an alternate reality. The other is about plane travel and takes place in our modern world. They are just inherently different.

But, think about it. There are some definite similarities. A rag tag group of survivors after a devastating tragedy, trying to survive on limited resources and means. The dynamics that arise between the interaction of people who would never otherwise have met. A power struggle between two central figures. The looming threat of a people who are similar but different from our heroes. The revelation that these people aren’t as villainous as we once thought. The quest for a seemingly unattainable goal. The revelation that the goal wasn’t exactly what it was cracked up to be. (Heavy spoilers from both shows follow.) 

And so on. The story they share is that of survivors. Whether there are 40 or 40,000, there are shared experiences that are unavoidable. But the shows both reach for similar stories and explore similar themes. You can draw parallels between numerous storylines and characters between the two shows. It’s uncanny sometimes. For example, the time Galactica spends on the cylon occupation of New Caprica parallels Lost’s season 3 captivity of Jack, Kate, and Sawyer by the Others. Both story arcs took place at the beginning of season 3, only lasted only a few episodes before the status quo was restored, and were frustrating to watch for the viewer.

I watched Lost a few months ago and am almost finished with Battlestar, having most recently reached the midseason finale where the fleet reached Earth and found it a wasteland. I am incredibly excited to see where it goes from here, but I noticed something as I started season 4. Having been not entirely shocked by Starbuck’s return from the dead at the end of season 3, I hungrily moved to the next episode on my Netflix. Instead of a season 4 premier, however, I found myself watching Razor, which some quick internet searching showed me was a TV movie all on its own, that chronologically took place in season 2. The movie chronicled the experience of the Battlestar Pegasus, from the time of the attack on the Colonies to their meeting with Galactica. I was reminded, unsurprisingly, of a great episode of Lost while watching it. “The Other 48 Days” details the lives of the survivors from the tail end of the Oceanic flight from the crash up until the point they meet our survivors. They are both excellent looks at the road not taken, at the reality that could have been there but for the grace of whatever. In the case of Battlestar, the Galactica had the benefit of Adama at the helm, a civilian fleet to protect, and Roslyn to keep them honest, all preventing them from becoming the military machine that Pegasus was. In Lost, the survivors from the middle of the plane had Jack, a doctor and a leader, they had luggage and spare clothing and alcohol and supplies, and they had a manifest to weed out the Other in their midst, to keep them from becoming like Analucia.

(End of Spoilers)

In essence, the experience of watching these shows has made me realize both how few stories there actually are out there, and how that doesn’t really matter. Watching Lost earlier this year didn’t at all hamper my enjoyment of Battlestar. On the contrary, I love finding clues to our collective consciousness, and recognizes archetypes that permeate fiction. It’s just one more way to enjoy stories. So my advice to you is: if you’ve watched show to watch the other. You might be surprised by just how much you end up liking it.