Commenter Alan wrote, about Defying Gravity (the latest international co-pro, which premiered last week and had another new episode last night): “I’m particularly curious about your thoughts on ‘non-linear’ storytelling. Sometimes it feels to me like they could convey the same plot information without using non-linear storytelling, so I guess the question is what does it add to the show, except maybe to add more of a sci-fi feel.”
I don’t really have much of an opinion on the show at the moment (though I like Ron Livingston) but think part of the importance of non-linear storytelling to a show like this may be the kinship with reality television. Like Lost (it’s been described as “Lost… in Space”), which was explicitly supposed to be a scripted show incorporating some of the elements of the reality shows that were beating scripted TV at the time, Gravity is a scripted show with a reality format — characters placed in a confined space and ordered to make it work, form alliances, and suffer for our amusement. This new show even makes the connection explicit by having the characters actually in the process of being filmed for a reality show, much like the Battlestar Galactica creator’s unsold pilot Virtuality. Though reality TV is not as big as it was a few years ago, there was a time when it seemed to many viewers have more interesting, unpredictable pacing than scripted shows, and part of that is the fact that they don’t always have to depend on linear storytelling: there can be flashbacks to what the contestants were doing before the competition started, or talking heads, which are inherently non-linear (since the talking-head format depends on cutting to a character at a different point in time, even if it’s only a few minutes later, and then cutting back to the “present”). Apart from wanting to create mysteries and a sense of menace, Lost and its progeny also assume that we’d rather be confused than bored.
A related element may be that non-linear storytelling creates somewhat more freedom in the editing room (again, similar to reality shows, which are almost completely created in editing). A linear, point A to point B story is hard to fix in editing; scenes can be trimmed, but most of them have to appear in the same order, so you can’t just end a scene and move to the next one. Flashbacks and flash-forwards open up new possibilities of where to end or interrupt a scene, which in turn create different options for saving an episode that isn’t working or holding the viewer’s interest. Which is important not only because of the accelerated pacing of today’s network dramas, but the short running times, which require creative editing solutions to fit all the necessary story information into the given time.