Dear Television – Stop the Flashbacks

QUANTICO. ARROW. ONCE UPON A TIME.  Three very different shows with one very similar problem: they are all locked into a flashback structure.  Each week, we deal with a storyline in the hear and now, and one based sometime in the past.  While this structure worked for season one of both ARROW and ONCE, it’s become much more cumbersome and detrimental to storytelling in later seasons.  QUANTICO, currently in the back half of its first season, still has a chance to eject the flashbacks and save itself.

In the case of all of these shows, the appeal of the flashback structure is apparent.  You set up a mystery in the “now” then slowly reveal how we got to this point. In ONCE, we were understanding how our fairy tale characters came to be in Storybrooke, and what their relationships were in the Enchanted Forest.  In ARROW, we learned what happened to Oliver while he was trapped alone on an island for five years that led him to be the Green Arrow (spoiler, he wasn’t alone on the island).  And in QUANTICO, we’re solving the mystery of which agent is the traitor who caused the bombing. The flashbacks draw us in because we know what we are driving towards, and we want to see how these unassuming pieces fit together, waiting for the moment when things click into place and we gasp with realization that we’ve seen that fateful moment when everything went south.

The structure can and has worked in other mediums. In the best-selling novel THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, each chapter alternates between the points of view of a woman investigating a murder, and the murdered woman herself.  The victim’s viewpoint starts a year prior to the murder, so with each subsequent chapter, we know we are getting closer to the final reveal.  When the book climaxes, the murder victim’s viewpoint has caught up with her demise, and we know what really happened on her last night.

But the reason the structure works in that novel is the exact reason why it fails in a TV show.  The mystery was solved and the book ended.  But with a TV show, you may wrap a mystery at the end of the season, but the show goes on. Which means you have to either A) abandon the structure, which nobody does or B) create a new mystery.


ONCE made the structure work for a while after season one. They went to Neverland and started a new mystery about Peter Pan and his origin, and everything was fine.  But as the seasons have ticked by, the writers have become more hard-pressed to find filler for those flashbacks.  The number of new “revelations” about Regina and Snow White’s relationship at this point is ridiculous. The flashbacks work best when they are driving towards something — during the Camelot episodes, we were seeing how Emma became the Dark One.  But now that our heroes have *literally* traveled to Hell, we’re just getting filler on relationships we’ve already explored to death (pun not…well, maybe actually intended) and it just isn’t engaging.

ARROW also started off with sound logic behind the flashbacks.  Oliver Queen had been alone on an island for five years, but somehow learned several languages, self-defense, archery, and had a thirst for vengeance.  So what really happened on that island?  But now it feels like the A-story is just dragged down by the flashbacks.  Oliver has been on the island, off the island, and back on the island.  The island gets more traffic than LAX.  Where before the flashbacks were about “how do we get to a certain  point,” they’ve now become their own thing, only tangentially related to what is happening in present day. ARROW suffers for it, by giving up story time for the five to ten minutes an episode it devotes to the island.  It may not seem like a lot, but nothing is more jarring than going from an emotional death bed scene to a plot line that at best will intersect with the A-Story by the season finale.

Which brings me to QUANTICO.  Currently in its first season, QUANTICO is using the flashbacks to provide insights into relationships and motivations that will eventually lead us to the real traitor in the FBI.  But I worry that QUANTICO will become locked into that structure and continue it onwards into its next season.  It would be a welcome relief if the show instead decided to break with what worked for season one and try something fresh for season two.   QUANTICO, I implore you, learn from your brethren, and don’t stay married to the flashbacks!  Let them fall to the past and move on to a brighter future.


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