Television used to be a pretty straightforward affair. Simple tales, told in a linear fashion, wrapped up with a happy ending. Then along came Lost, with its flashbacks, its flashforwards and its flash-sidwards. There’d been non-conventional story-telling devices used before, in Twin Peaks of course, and to head-spinningly funny effect in Arrested Development, but Lost really took the format and ran with it.
Two shows have recently been broadcast which really make use of non-linear storytelling. This Is Us (which has just finished broadcasting in the UK on Channel 4) and Big Little Lies (currently in the middle of its run on Sky Atlantic) make the flashbacks and different timelines an essential part of the show. It invites the audience to view the show as a jigsaw, slowly putting the pieces together until it all makes sense.
Spoilers for both This Is Us and Big Little Lies from here on in:
This Is Us makes it’s structure the major selling point of the show. For the majority of the pilot, you think you’re watching a show about a different set of people who are all turning 35 on the same day: Jack, who’s married to Rebecca who’s due to have triplets; Kevin, a disillusioned sit-com actor in Los Angeles, Kate, his overweight twin sister, and Randall, a black Wall Street worker trying to trace his biological father. It’s only in the last 5 minutes that it’s brilliantly revealed that the Jack storyline has actually been a flashback to 1980, and that Jack and Rebecca are Kate and Kevin’s parents and adopted Randall when he was born (the third triplet having died during birth).
It’s the sort of episode that you want to watch twice to catch all the little clues that creator Dan Fogelberg has left scattered around. And although the surprise factor of that first episode is lost through the rest of the season, the non-linear structure means that plenty of other mysteries are left for the audience to work out – for instance, it’s revealed early on that Jack is dead in the present day, but even at the end of the season, it’s still unknown exactly how he died (I have a horrible feeling that this storyline may remain unresolved until the very last episode of This Is Us).
There are plenty of other reasons to love This Is Us besides its unconventional structure. The acting is wonderful throughout, with Sterling K Brown standing out as Randall and Milo Ventimiglia showing he can do far more than the brooding bad boy that he made his name with on Gilmore Girls. The music is also brilliantly chosen, with several Sufjan Stevens songs tugging on the emotional heartstrings.
Big Little Lies is less reliant on the flashbacks to tell its story, but there are stil mysteries to be sold. It opens with the discovery of a body that’s seemingly been pushed, and then we flash back to meet Madeline, Celeste, Jane, Renata and Bonnie, who all live in Monterey, California. Is the body one of them? Is one of them the murderer? What’s the deal with Jane, the single mother who’s just moved to town, and who’s the father of her son Ziggy? Is Celeste’s marriage as perfect as it seems to outsiders, or is there a darkness lurking underneath? And what’s the truth when Renata’s daughter accuses Ziggy of bullying her?
Over the course of its 7 episodes, Big Little Lies answers all those questions, and does so compellingly. It’s a little bit soapy (so is This Is Us to be fair) but the quality of the acting from its A-list cast is first-rate: Reese Witherspoon is hilariously feisty as Madeline, Shailene Woodley is an absolute revelation as Jane, and Nicole Kidman produces some of her best work in years as Celeste. Her relationship with Perry, chillingly portrayed by Alexander Skarsgard, is almost too uncomfortable to watch at times.
To say any more would be spoiling things, and part of the beauty of Big Little Lies is picking up the clues and watching them come together at the end. There’s no loose ends – this is just a 7 episode show with, at the moment at least, no plans for a second season – so there’s a satisfying sense of closure as the final episode finishes.
Even though both shows can be melodramatic and a bit emotionally manipulative, the ‘jigsaw’ nature of them means that it’s a pleasure to search for all the missing pieces.