Why Are Flashbacks So Important To Your Favorite TV Shows?

Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC.
The TV flashback is nothing new; it's a standard way of advancing character development in both comedies and dramas. Golden Girls used them; the cutaway is standard on Family Guy. Friends' flashbacks brought us the legendary, if problematic, Fat Monica. And in recent decades, flashbacks have become the very premise of shows themselves. It works for both comedy and drama; How I Met Your Mother and Lost both relied exclusively on flashbacks (and, sometimes, flash-forwards) to tell their stories.

In the current TV landscape, shows like Once Upon a Time and Orange Is The New Black rely on flashbacks to explain their characters' personalities. And, of course, This Is Us has captivated audiences with its twists, most of which are revelations about past events. The current seasons of Scandal and How To Get Away with Murder are told heavily through flashbacks, too.

So why are we so obsessed with this past-tense framework of guiding the story? I'd argue that our propensity for flashbacks tends to stem from the human desire to see the good in people. If a character acts out of turn or has a dislikable trait, it's probably because something bad happened in their past, right? We don't want to believe someone is bad just because they're bad. We instinctively assume there must be an explanation. Even the most sinister villains have origin stories, after all. And when they're executed correctly, flashbacks can be even more shocking than the present-day plot developments. (Case in point: last week's stunning Crazy Ex-Girlfriend season finale.)

The reliance on flashbacks to "explain" character flaws part of the reason This Is Us has become so popular, even though it's only in its first season. We're inclined to believe that people act the way they do because of their upbringing, and the NBC drama attacks this head-on. In This Is Us, we get to know three thirty-something siblings navigating life and love. But the scenes of their current lives are spliced with flashbacks of their parents' relationship, and how they were treated as children.
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Character development is essential for good TV, and flashbacks help guide that development in a way that feels meaningful.

The show doesn't make childhood tensions the subject of a "big reveal" later on; instead, it offers small reveals in each episode. We get to know as much of the trio's past as we do about their present. For instance, we learn that Kate's body image issues stem, in part, from offhanded remarks her mother made while she was growing up. The '80s flashbacks help us to better understand who Kate is in the current day.

The flashback-heavy framing works better for dramas than it does for comedies. The longer episode time allows scenes to breathe more. It doesn't feel cramped, say, to have an '80s Jack-Rebecca plot alongside a Kevin plot and a Randall plot in one This Is Us episode. Likewise, shorter flashbacks work for sitcoms — they provide background context for specific events in a character's life, but they're not the focus of the storyline. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, for instance, gives us kernels about Kimmy's captivity here and there, but it's mostly about the aftermath and her life in the present, after being rescued.

One show that subverts this, though, is The Mindy Project. Flashbacks are extremely rare for Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling), the show's protagonist. We've met Mindy's parents, and we know they send her compliment-filled emails on a regular basis. But the show never really suggests Mindy's personality is because of her parents. She loves romantic comedies, though her parents had an arranged marriage. What's most notable about the show, however, is that there aren't flashbacks or backstory explanations about why Danny (Chris Messina), the father of Mindy's son, turned completely evil. Sometimes bad people really are just bad people, apparently.

Our cultural affinity for flashbacks is sweet, if not naive. (Knowing why someone is that way doesn't mean you can do anything to change them.) Character development is essential for good TV, and flashbacks help guide that development in a way that feels meaningful. Now, more than ever, we need the escapism of entertainment. If getting to know our favorite characters better provides that escapism, shows like This Is Us are here at exactly the right time.

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