overthinking the idiot box

January 30, 2006

In the world of television, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the writers and producers of hour-long crime dramas, and the viewers, who watch said dramas. These are their stories.

Be Careful Out There
Flashback, Flashforward, Flashface

by Andreanna Ditton

Once upon a time... wait, I've started that way before.

Actors were forced to tell their story through a decent script and, well, acting. And lo, for sometimes this was a very bad thing for those very same reasons.
A long time ago in a multiverse far away, viewers of police procedurals actually had to follow the clues as the intrepid investigators uncovered them. They were forced to pay attention, to retain information offered at the beginning of the hour and allow said information to swoop and fester and congeal until at the end of the hour, once the detectives had nabbed their man, woman or very bad seed, the viewer could take comfort in having ridden the mystery along with their televised proxy. Actors were forced to tell their story through a decent script and, well, acting. And lo, for sometimes this was a very bad thing for those very same reasons.

But as the procedural evolved, the cop show became as much about the work as the central mystery. The day to day life of the boys and girls in blue (or in black) developed into its own genre culminating in shows like Hill Street Blues and Homicide: Life on the Streets, which were treats for both viewers and actors.

But viewers still craved the puzzle, the technical details of crime, of criminology. They wanted the clues as much as they wanted to be watching the detectives.

"Linear storytelling is for suckers, kids!"
Cue Jerry Brukheimer with his foleyvision and his perpetual flash back, flash forward, flash false and the face of the cop show changed forever.

Don't get me wrong, I think the recreation of the crime in flashback is an interesting element, although it's certainly not a new one. Most detective stories have taken advantage of the flashback more than once to tell their story, but Bruckheimer's flashovision (and influence) took the concept in a new direction. In addition to showing the viewer how the crime unfolds, the flashback offers the viewer a series of false positives that underscore how much potential for damage and violence there is out there. Grissom's voice narrating a death is not proof that it happened that way, it's only speculation come to light. It's the final flashback that proves key. Nothing before that can be trusted, even as we witness it with our own eyes.

In its favor, the false flashback shifts the focus on to the procedure as opposed to the proceduralists. It also allowed the genre to experiment with visual storytelling techniques in a way that hadn't been done before. Viewers needed to follow a non-linear story in the midst of a linear investigation, and for that, I'm thankful. I like new, I like different, I like experimentation with imagery and timelines. However, after the 80,000 use of the exact same formula, this technique has become clich³, not cutting edge.

On the plus side, the flashback allows the viewer to see the crime in action, to see it as something visceral, to recreate a violent act, a betrayal, an irreversible decision. In glorious Technicolor, we see how the victim suffered and died, how the unwitting were duped and the venal were triumphant. CSI and Without a Trace both utilize flashbacks to illuminate a literal path followed by the victims, suspects and criminals followed up to the point where the detectives step in and start steering the story. With CSI, this means a literal recreation of the crime, one repeated with variation as the clues are uncovered and the story changes as the investigator's perceptions change. It's a constant re-creation that's manipulated and tweaked due to new information until the actual perpetrator is identified, a new way — at the time — of showing the false starts of any investigation, the way clues can mislead and the way that science can get them to speak truth.

In Without a Trace, a show focused more on the victim or the person gone missing than with forensic evidence, the technique is used to show the missing person's movements up until the point they're found. And in truth, I find myself far more intrigued with its use on Without A Trace, in part because the show is about those who've disappeared, and the ease with which that happens. The show is always on a timeline, the clock constantly running, the picture of the victim placed prominently on the board to always keep that person at the center of the investigation and the hour. The flashbacks convey time passing as well as providing information and insight into the victim's movements.

However, the trick has become a trope and new shows are seemingly forced to choose between the traditional procedural's approach of suspect interviewing and evidence compiling or the flashback. In Justice, the mid-season show starring Kyle MacLachlan, Kyle MacLachlan's hair, and Jason O'Mara as a lawyer, a lawyer's and a detective working for the National Justice Project, has chosen to go this route, and so far, it's not working for me.

It's too early to tell if this will work in the show's favor, but I find myself predisposed to some eye rolling doubt at the formula, despite the fluffy joy of Kyle MacLachlan's hair.
Shows like In Justice and its conceptual predecessor Cold Case should have an easier time justifying this technique on the basis of recreating a literal past. Because Cold Case is about unsolved crimes, the atmosphere of the era is built up to give a sense of how the victim or perpetrator was living. In Justice, which is also looking at actions from a distant past, can justify the technique in the same way. It's too early to tell if this will work in the show's favor, but I find myself predisposed to some eye rolling doubt at the formula, despite the fluffy joy of Kyle MacLachlan's hair. In Cold Case, the recreations are emotionally manipulative. It's like all of the elements of the era are there, but so filtered through our current perception of these eras — this falsely created nostalgia of song and dress and vehicle — that nothing about the imagery rings true. In trying to portray the "real" events, these shows have lost the ability to offer any sort of truth to the viewer. The truth is that no one but those who were there can possibly know the details of a crime. This is the horror of violent crime — that even when all of the clues are presented, there is almost no way to know if the clues really can tell the story of the crime.

Flashbacks used to be a way to tell the viewer something they couldn't possibly know, something that had never previously been included in the text of the show. They were a way to merge past and present, but nowadays, the flashback is a short cut device that robs the viewer of the actual procedure of uncovering a crime and this is where the technique becomes a gimmick instead of a form of illumination. Instead of trusting that a cast is capable of telling a story, of letting words and expression and emotion take the viewer through, the flashback has become a cheat, a choose your own adventure of answers. In the flashback heavy format, the viewer is suddenly voyeur, not participant, a watcher without a purpose beyond titillation.

From a detecting perspective, I find the reliance on flashbacks frustrating. We no longer see detectives drawing conclusions, we see them expositing their knowledge, playing with high tech toys, and announcing the aftereffects of villainy with a confidence that they simply don't deserve to exhibit. And while the story within a story format was interesting when it first debuted on CSI, it has grown wearisome as a worn out phrase. Its become the "Where's the Beef" of the cop show beat.

At the end of Three Men and Adena, a story that is literally told inside a box, Tim Bayliss and Frank Pembleton exit the room without any conclusions on the murder of young Adena Watson. Their 12 hours are up, their suspect will be released, and they no longer hold the same views on his guilt as they did before the interrogation began. Shaken, exhausted and defeated, they release the Araber and Bayliss puts a picture of Adena Watson on his desk. The case is never solved. And we got the details, the pathos, the pain and the clues — muddled as they are — without a flashback in sight.

Now, Homicide had the luxury of stretching a case out over several episodes, not something that any of the current procedurals offer. However, what was remarkable about the story is that it showed the viewer that the detectives could do everything right, and they would still be left with an unsolved crime and a freed murderer at the end of the day. We leave the end of Three Men and Adena as shaken and uncertain as either detective. And we do so based solely on the words, the motion, the desperation and the pathos of three men and one hell of a well-told story. My advice to Jerry? You've perfected your technique. Now find a new way to tell your story.

Email the author.

Return to Season 2, Episode 8.