Episodes: Friday mailbag (June 23)


I've got company, so we're going to keep this week's mailbag short and/or sweet.

Phillip writes:

After watching the latest season of "Orange is the New Black," I'm struck again with how they employ the character-centric flashback device. This season, excluding Red's and Taystee's flashbacks, they're a little mixed. Caroline Framke's great piece touched on this. My wife and I refer to this as "Lost-backs" since we associate that style of character-per-episode flashback with "Lost." Is there a show that predates "Lost" with that kind of format? And, if I can add another part, what is your preferred use of flashback (if at all)?


So far as I know, that format was invented by Lost. Now, Lost was drawing from other sources. (One I always cite to people's incredulity is The Love Boat, which provided ample back-story for the guests of the week.) But it was, by and large, inventing its own structure.

What's been more surprising to me is how the adoption of this structure didn't happen across the board. It's a great way to dig into character history in an ensemble drama. This Is Us uses a modified version of the form (in that we always hop back to when the Big Three were kids), and Orange, of course, uses it pretty much as is. The Good Place is in that boat too. But that's pretty much it!

I guess the reason for this is that eventually, the flashbacks run out of room to play with. There's only so much you really want to know about a character's back-story, and cutting away to a place where the other regulars can't exist as they do can be hard to juggle. Lost saved itself by offering up all sorts of variations on the flashback structure. Say what you will about the final season's flash-sideways, but they really did offer a great way to examine how far the characters had come over the course of the show, and I suspect if the reveal in the finale had been more spectacular, they'd be remembered with a lot of fondness.

But, yeah, Orange has run into what Lost did: It doesn't have enough interesting material to delve into in its flashbacks, which means they appear more sporadically, which means when one pops up, you go, "Oh. Yeah. Right." I suggest the show just ditch them, but I think they like having one line to the post-prison world.

James writes:

I was reminded the other day of the existence of the sitcom It's a Living. And I was also reminded about how weird it was that it aired for a couple of seasons on network TV, then came back in syndication *several years later* and was apparently reasonably successful for a lot longer. And it's not quite the only show like that — We Got It Made and Mama's Family basically had the same thing happen. I guess my question is: What's the deal with those chintzy '80s sitcoms performing unspectacularly on network TV but getting revived for syndication? Was this just an '80s thing, or has this happened regularly? (I guess Baywatch is the most famous and successful example of this, come to think of it.)


I don't know what happened with It's a Living specifically, but I can explain this whole movement pretty succinctly, because we're going through it again right now. Basically, the '80s were the first time in TV history when everybody realized there was a lot of money to be made by flooding the airwaves with stuff, thanks to the advent of cable TV and the boom in original syndication. Couple this with the fact that the Baby Boomers, who had come of age with TV, were just starting to have kids of their own to share those TV memories with, and you have fertile ground for a nostalgia machine.

Then there was another phenomenon that kept popping up in the '80s, which is shows that were more popular in syndication than they had been in first-run. The most famous example of this is Star Trek (which finally got a sequel series off the ground in the decade), but you could also look at shows like Leave It to Beaver (had its own sequel series Still the Beaver) and WKRP in Cincinnati (followed by The New WKRP in Cincinnati) to see other variations on this trend. It's really not that far off from our current quest to reboot every single successful series of the '80s and '90s, a quest that will surely peter out in time just as this quest did.

The difference between then and now is that right now, you want to make that revival an event. Gilmore Girls didn't come back with another 22-episode season of low-conflict hijinks. No, it came back with a miniseries event. Same with The X-Files and Prison Break and 24. We want our TV to acknowledge that time has passed now; that was less true in the '80s, when people didn't have a reasonable assumption they would see every episode. A show like Still the Beaver would acknowledge the new (depressing!) circumstances the Cleavers found themselves in in the first episode, but then it would settle into fun adventures that were wrapped up in a single episode. Netflix probably isn't going to do that.

As for It's a Living itself, a quick scan of a few newspapers from the time suggests that the first two seasons (with only 27 episodes!) were ported into syndication, where they were a big hit. Why did this happen? Who can say! But bringing it back made a lot of sense if that was the case. That it ran for 93 additional episodes in syndication is kind of astounding, though.

Maxwell asks:

Save for job description restrictions or general knowledge, is there anything that keeps you from reviewing music more often? And what are some of your favorite musical artists?


When I started making inroads into criticism, I had to pace myself, and one of the ways I did that was by deciding I wasn't going to try to compete with music critics. I knew a lot about TV. I knew quite a bit about film. And I knew enough about books to review them. But pop music was something where I've been playing catch-up my whole life, since I spent roughly the first 15 years of my life listening to first Christian music, then Broadway, then country. While that's an eclectic background, it doesn't really qualify me to write about how much I like the new Lorde album beyond, "That album is good!" I'd rather read pieces from people who really know what they're talking about than try to force it. (Bad things happen when I do that.)

That said, I suppose some of it is a conscious choice to back off of music, too, because I'm getting older, and my tastes have ossified a bit. I'm still getting into new artists here and there, and I hear new music all the time that makes me say, "That's good!" But I'm also not seeking it out in the way I used to. By not having to be at 100 percent on music comprehension, I can give myself room to futz around more. If I want to listen to "Never Ending Circles" by Chvrches over 100 times in a row (as I did one day in 2015) because it's sparking something in my brain, well, that's what I'll do.

I hesitate to share a list of favorite musical artists because I know I'll forget somebody and it would also be a pretty embarrassing list! My tastes tend to skew toward indie rock and indie pop, though I've gotten more into hip hop since becoming a culture critic than I was before I got this job. (Trust me, though: I still know way too little.) I have always said that I will listen to "anything," and that's more or less true. Honestly, one of the reasons I'd love to have a TV show is to curate the soundtrack, because I think I could make it eclectic as hell.

So that is a too-short, possibly disappointing answer. I don't write about music because I don't feel like I'm qualified to do it. I don't have favorite artists because I don't want you to make fun of me.

That said, gun to my head, The New Pornographers, Bruce Springsteen, and some "girls singing over synths" pop group.

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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox