Is Time Travel the New Ratings Ploy?

Way back in 1999, before any of us had to suffer through that last season of Nip/Tuck or listen to the shrill auto-tuned squealings of 20-somethings playing high school students on Glee, Ryan Murphy was a bit of a nothing. In fact, back in 1999, Murphy was slumming it on the WB, a second-rate network that, nevertheless, was home to all of my favorite shows. One of them was even Murphy’s overly campy, sometimes preachy Popular. Even 10 years later, the season finale of that first season remains a strong example of Murphy’s ability to tap into the culture of the time. In this particular episode, Murphy tried to cram a season’s worth of cliches into one single episode to create the “greatest” season finale episode. The fact of the matter is, it was all an elaborate joke that too many of Murphy’s target audience missed out on. Nevertheless, it featured a death, a marriage, and even a pregnancy scare.

Since 1999, the world has changed a great deal, more specifically the world of television. Yes, there was certainly a time when the go-to standards of owning sweeps could be find in the death of a beloved character, or even the promise of the death of a character, or in a sweet, simple exchange of vows between two TV favorites, but the fact remains, television is evolving.

I’m not simply referring to the narrative complexity, as a number of shows shift from stand-alone episodes to long form narratives, but to our expectations of television. The fallbacks of the 90s (death, marriage, life, etc.) as a means to get ratings isn’t quite what it used to be. They’ve become too predictable and too easy to manufacture. Instead, we’re seeing massive overhauls of a completely different type. Shows have become more and more reliant on different methods of securing viewers, something that guarantees them more than a strong following during sweeps week.

Time travel has always been a popular element in science fiction television, but science fiction has always been a bit of a ratings anomaly. Sure, science fiction isn’t one of the most critically acclaimed or widely beloved genres, but it is one that has consistently delivered an audience. However, in order for the use of time travel, a term I use loosely to refer to a drastic shift in the temporal storyline, to become profitable to other networks, besides SyFy, it had to be normalized.

A lot of this work was done with the popular success of Lost, which saw both time travel and narrative complexity take a prominent place in the world of television. However, as the show wore on and the flashbacks and present-day material became expected, Damon Lindelof and the team of creators behind the show realized that more was needed to keep viewers invested in the narrative. The season three finale proved to be just what the show needed. Although the show was already openly science fiction and, at least narratively speaking, a time travel story, by re-establishing the confines of time and storytelling in that final scene, Lost managed to change the name of the game entirely.

However, as previously noted, Lost was admittedly science fiction. Sure, it was popular science fiction, but it was never straying too far out of the expectations of the genre. Soon after, it became clear that a show could have a cult following, while appeasing a commercial crowd. Soon after, Desperate Housewives followed suit. In its season four finale, the popular ABC nighttime soap featured a glimpse of things to come as it fast-forwarded five years to see where the housewives and their families would be. While not a traditional example of time travel, it is exactly the type of shift in time as well as narrative that had become so popular with Lost.

Until this point, the ploy of time travel, or at least temporal discontinuity, tended to be reserved for a season finale. However, with the return of HBO’s True Blood, over a month ago, creator Alan Ball took a risk. He used the tactic to draw viewers in with the season four premiere, rather than a method of keeping people. regardless of its repercussions, the fact remains that time travel is almost becoming normalized. It’s still odd enough that it manages to draw viewers in (or sometimes turn them off) but it is crucial to recognize that the element of time travel has managed to cast off the shackles of its sci-fi origin to make its way into the mainstream. Not only that, but it seems that it is becoming increasingly common, both as a storytelling device, but also as a way of getting and/or keeping viewers engaged, the networks happy, and the ratings high.


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