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Time Pieces
2006-12-02 13:14
by Mark T.R. Donohue

On the all-time list of movies that people often automatically name-check without even having seen, Rashomon ranks pretty highly, due to its innovative use of flashback structure. I have seen Rashomon. Like a lot of other films that have entered the pantheon due to using some sort of pioneering technique that is now commonplace, it comes across as a little bit underwhelming -- call it the Citizen Kane effect. If you feel you need to see one and only one Kurosawa film, my vote goes for Yojimbo. But you can see why Rashomon references persist fify years after the movie was made. From a critic's perspective, "Rashomon-like" sounds a lot better than "like that one 'X-Files' where Luke Wilson and the kid from The Sandlot are vampires." And movies and television continue to use structures that depart from linear chronological storytelling like it was going out of style, which it obviously isn't.

Three episodes of series television broadcast just this week had me thinking about Rashomon, yet again, and exactly what it is about the flashback that makes it so irresistible for screenwriters. After Pulp Fiction, random time-juggles have been used all over film and TV, and too often, they're merely a way of making up for the lack of a strong plot, not enhancing an already solid one. On the rapidly declining "Lost," the writers' addiction to flashbacks gives them an easy way of avoiding having to give the audience much (or any) new information every week. How many times do we need to sit through boring riffs on already-established material like Jack's perfectionism, Locke's longing for family, or Jin and Sun's marriage-as-a-microcosm for Korean class war? Not to mention how much of a huge cheat it feels like when the writers do their best one week to get us emotionally invested in lame characters like Shannon and Ana Lucia and then kill them the next. For some reason the "Lost" showrunners continue to adhere to the first-season template of "every episode must be built around a flashback," which made sense then and feels stifling now. Whether they wise up and realize they can change this like they've changed everything else on the show will go a long way towards determining whether "Lost" emerges from its present malaise.

But "Lost" is on hiatus; that's not even one of the shows I was talking about. I wanted to address three shows from this week -- actually, they were all on back-to-back-to-back on Monday night -- that used time skips. Two of them, "Heroes" and "How I Met Your Mother," justified the departure from linear storytelling with clever and original twists on the style. One of them, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," cheaply and lazily used flashbacks as a way of trying to inject some drama and portent into a dull script which didn't have any real conflicts or surprises.

"Six Months Ago" wasn't the most exciting episode of the reliably thrilling "Heroes" to go over NBC's air, but it made sense given the schedule. With only two shows left before an extended holiday break, a beat to fill in important background information and save the major revelations and inevitable cliffhanger for the half-season finale next week made sense. To be sure, a lot of the things we learned from going back to right before the time the series began weren't surprising. The major hook of this "Heroes" was seeing the origin story of superpowered serial killer Sylar, but most of what we saw could have been inferred from past episodes' dialogue. (What's more, dressing the character up in Elijah Wood's haircut and glasses from Sin City, speaking of movies that jump around on their internal timeline for no good reason, gave away what little surprise might have remained.) None of our glimpses into Claire, Matt, Niki, and Peter and Nathan's backstories were particularly enlightening, but the more screen time given Nora Zehetner's Eden, the better.

What was really special about "Six Months Ago" was what makes a lot of "Heroes" episodes great -- the scenes involving Masi Oka's Hiro. Other writers than I have pegged Oka as the breakout star of the "Heroes" cast, and they're not wrong. It's almost impossible not to fall in love with Hiro's enthusiasm and spirit. "Six Months," appropriately, gave Oka a romantic storyline, but it also did it in a clever and mind-bending way. While the scenes featuring the rest of the cast all were set six months in the past, as the title suggests, the Hiro we follow in the episode is actually the present-day Hiro, having travelled back in time to try and save the life of Jayma Mays' Charlie, murdered by Sylar back in the series' present. This kept the whole episode from feeling too much like an uninformative placeholder. It even moves the story forward, since the lesson absorbed by Hiro at the hour's close is one that's certainly going to be relevant for all of the "Heroes." Oka has been at the emotional heart of every episode he's been in, starting with the pilot, and "Six Months Ago" is the most he's yet been asked to do, since he's the only character we see in the episode who's aware of all of the chaos that's to come. His performance, smart writing, and a few beautiful moments of pure cinema (a diner filled with hanging paper cranes, a vertical shot of exercisers on an inexplicably green-grassed Tokyo rooftop) turned "Six Months Ago" from what on paper should have been a bland bit of dramatic thumb-twiddling into yet another plank in the ever more convincing argument that "Heroes" is truly something special.

I'm not going to throw around such words of praise with regard to "How I Met Your Mother," but after a wobbly fall start the second-year sitcom has regained its momentum with the best stretch of episodes it's ever boasted. I didn't think they would be able to match the guffaws the Canada-bashing "Slap Bet" induced, and indeed "Single Stamina" wasn't quite that funny. It made up for it with a clever ending that had me asking myself if I'd ever seen such a device in a sitcom before. "Mother" uses flashbacks pretty liberally, most notably in the first season's memorable "The Pineapple Incident," where Ted relied on the recollections of his various friends to reconstruct the events of a forgotten bender the evening before. As the cast has grown in confidence the comedy's reliance on its initial premise has happily been reduced, but of course the whole series is being in told in flashback by Ted to his children. "Single Stamina" however closed with a flash forward, about nine months from the series' present-day. I can't remember another example of a show of this type jumping forward in its time scale to a point so close in the future. Barring catastrophe "How I Met Your Mother" will still be on in nine months' time, and the show gave us a nervy little glimpse into what the characters' lives will be like when we get there. Lily and Marshall will indeed be getting married, no shock there. But if you caught the episode, note the ambiguous way Ted and Robin get up to dance -- could they still be a couple this far ahead? Stay tuned!

"Single Stamina" demonstrated good writing in so many ways. The flash-forward gave the episode's story its natural emotional conclusion, with Barney accepting his brother's decision to get married by bonding with his baby nephew. It also addressed a practical real-world concern. There's no way to be sure that guest star Wayne Brady will be available to appear again in a year's time, so why not go ahead and get his arc covered all in one episode? Not that there's anything preventing the "Mother" producers from bringing him back, or even covering his character's wedding again from a different perspective when it rolls around again in real time. They'll just have to watch the old tape and make sure the outfits and haircuts match. (Maybe the best thing about this episode is that it confirms that Alyson Hannigan will be remaining a brunette for at least the forseeable future. I can dig it.) Revisiting the series' early episodes on the recently released DVDs, you can already find continuity errors if you're the sort of person who keeps up with that kind of thing. But that's part of the fun of "How I Met Your Mother," and of course the whole thing is a tale being told by Bob Saget, and we know how unreliable he is, so...well, you should tune in. Reports of the traditional sitcom's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

The "Studio 60" offering "B-12," following on the heels of "Heroes," had big shoes to fill, and although I'm not as down on the Aaron Sorkin drama as some others, this episode was an outright loser. Each and every time "Studio 60" suggests to me that it's finding its path, it does a stinker like this one and I wonder what I was thinking recommending the pilot so highly. A bunch of half-baked ideas about a hostage situation, Jordan's job security, an outbreak of illness among the cast, and the defection of most of the writing staff, "B-12" had no payoff, so it tried to create artificial momentum by chopping the story up into unintuitive flashbacks. There wasn't any reason to do so, and the seams showed badly. A few repeated scenes that were supposed to play much more dramatic the second time through with additional information available just felt like the TiVo skipping. Anyone with half a brain who'd watched a TV drama could see where they were going, and I'm not giving any sort of extra credit merely for not taking the most obvious path. The linear path is the most obvious one for a reason. If you're not going to provide some sort of dramatic justification for your decision to go all Rashomon on the viewer, don't bother. It's been done.

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