Playing around with time in movies and TV is becoming a popular new way to keep viewers on their toes lately. Known as time jumps, we’re starting to see TV shows taking more risks by jumping into the future, sometimes much farther ahead than what logic might dictate. And even the movies have taken some extreme risks in taking wide time leaps (see “Cloud Atlas”) while still maintaining some kind of cohesion to a story. Is it worth all these risks, or is it a gimmick that people are going to soon find pretentious? Much of that has to do with how believable it really is in making people age and whether fictional universes should even worry about time.
The TV show that utilizes time jumps in the best way so far is “Mad Men.” While you could say it’s moved along in a real-time parallel to the 1960s, it’s actually jumped ahead a number of months a few times to strategically set up a certain period of time so particular historical events can play out in the background. Now in its final season, you’d expect “Mad Men” to do even more of that as it sails through 1969 and perhaps ending in 1970. Or will it make the same move “How I Met Your Mother” did recently and jump ahead to the present day to give some closure to the characters?
“How I Met Your Mother” isn’t the only series to jump ahead into a far-off future. If you ever watched “Fringe”, then you know their final season jumped into the year 2036 to give a whole new perspective on the characters. It’s a device that worked great for “Fringe”, yet a mixed response with “How I Met Your Mother” above. No doubt the reason is because sci-fi can get away with time jumps and sitcoms simply can’t without looking making it look implausible.
Yes, there was the big problem of showing the “HIMYM” cast seemingly not aging much as they kept moving progressively into the future. When TV shows decide to move into the future, how believable can they really make it when we age much faster than we care to admit?
TV Shows Making Time Passing Believable
With “Mad Men”, we have the interesting parallel of Don Draper seemingly never aging and dressing like he’s still residing in 1960 while the rest of the world changes around him. That’s effective just by itself and tells you more about the Draper character than anything else. It’s also effective because the characters age along with us, while still being out of time. For most shows, audience prefer this without stretching logic on thinking everyone is going to look the same in just two years.
“Parks and Recreation” just decided to make a decision to jump ahead three years with their show, and the characters really don’t look any different than they do in the present. Is that a mistake to not show any sense of aging, or are TV comedies turning into comic strips where characters never age after existing for 70 years?
Sitcoms May Have to Be Stuck in Time
Producers of sitcoms seem to be setting the reset button when it comes to bringing any logic to timelines. While only the most OCD person would want a show to seem like it truly exists in our own reality, they seem to be almost doing a Brechtian theater approach where we detach ourselves from suspension of disbelief. In “Parks and Recreation”, it could technically be any year and it wouldn’t matter. And that might be for the better on any sitcom to give a sense of timelessness when it goes into syndication and gets viewed 50 years from now.
While this works even better in sci-fi, sitcoms may have to use an out of time concept so they can become more creative and use time jumps in effective ways. It’s clear that’s going to be the future narrative structure of sitcoms to add more surprises and interest to events rather than thinking everything has to move in slow parallel to our own time frame.
The only danger is ending a series in a future that tries to guess the things that might be there. While movies like “Back to the Future Part II” managed to guess a few things right (and get some major things wrong), sitcoms ending in the future should probably end a little differently. The “How I Met Your Mother” finale wisely made things look basically the same in 2024 as they do now, at least inside a family home. It gives TV shows a reminder that the future may not change things too dramatically from 2014, despite all of us probably changing drastically in appearance.