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Best TV Shows: Manipulating Time

Updated on May 1, 2017

Some television series use nonlinearity in some episodes, presenting the events in a non-chronological way or showing time as a heterogeneous entity. The motivation is the same as in cinema: to present the character’s past or future, to depict the workings of memory, dream, illness, altered states of consciousness or as a narrative hook to increase the viewer’s suspense. Last but not least is an attempt to enact scientific notions of time, usually in science fiction narratives. Below I’m presenting a list of my favourite tv series manipulating chronological time (which do not concentrate on time travel but sometimes use it as one of many techniques). If you know other great shows, please give me the titles in the comment section – I’m always on the lookout for time-bending tv series.

1. Fringe (J. J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, 2008-2013, Fox)

How much time do you need? 5 seasons, 100 episodes = 76,66 hrs

Plot: At the beginning the show is a police procedural in which FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) of Fringe Division, together with civilian consultant Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) and his father, a brilliant eccentric scientist, Walter Bishop (John Noble), investigate odd cases of scientific experimentation that involve nanotechnology, cybernetics, neuroscience, AI, genetic engineering, etc. These phenomena, situated on the fringes of science, mix science fact with science fiction, shifting the boundaries of what is possible. The abuse of various scientific theories, resulting in criminal cases, makes up ‘The Pattern’ that disrupts “the fundamental constants of nature” and uncovers the existence of a parallel universe. The two universes occupy the same space-time but exist in different dimensions and some of the characters are able to travel between the universes. With this development, the episodic structure of the police procedural, with every episode-case closed or presenting a mini-resolution, is juxtaposed with multi-episode arcs and relationship dramas, creating an entangled web of interconnections.

Time manipulations:

First, time in Fringe splits into two alternate realities. Second, the parallel universes advance along several timelines. Third, the events within those timelines are not chronological either; there are flashbacks, flashforwards, flashes sideways and time travel. Additionally, a variety of time concepts is employed: time loops, time jumps, time slips, déjà vu type incidents, frozen moments, accelerated time, characters who can predict the future, and characters who exist outside of time (the Observers). They are always explained scientifically within the plot. The multiple plot threads are shown at a merciless tempo, deceiving and misguiding the viewer, serving unexpected twists and complicating the relations between the characters and plot threads. Watch out for slight differences between the universes and people inhabiting them, Easter eggs, mysterious glyphs separating the acts of each episode, and things which you can only see for a few seconds but which change the meaning of the whole episode. This show requires an active viewer who watches with their eyes wide open and does not even blink!

2. Westworld (2016- , Jonathan Nolan, HBO)

How much time do you need? 1 season to date, 10 episodes = 10 hrs

Plot: Westworld is a futuristic amusement park in which robotic “hosts” indistinguishable from people will satisfy a visitor’s every desire. Every day is the same for the hosts who replay their roles: Dolores goes to the town and drops a can on the ground while Teddy picks it up, the prostitutes Maeve and Clementine wait for the clients, Hector burns the town, etc. The employees of the park clean the mess in the evening, mend the hosts’ bodies and erase their memories. Yet, as it usually happens with artificial intelligence, the hosts appear to be sentient and some of them come to have their own agenda. The show is full of unexpected twists and ambiguities, there’s a mysterious character, the Man in Black, and a mystifying symbol of the Maze seen everywhere in the park.

Time manipulations: several timelines, repetitions, the present intermingled with the past.

3. Flashforward (Brannon Braga, David S. Goyer, 2009-2010, ABC)

How much time do you need? 1 season, 22 episodes = 15,4 hrs

Plot: Every person on earth blacks out for over two minutes and during that time they have “a memory of the future,” half a year from now. While FBI investigates the event and its possible causes, people try to deal with what they saw. Does that future have to happen or can one change it? Is it fate or just one of the possible futures? Why did some people see nothing?

Time manipulations: mainly jumping to the future and the effect of the future vision on the present life; the question of how the future changes the present.

4. Continuum (Simon Barry, 2012-2015, Showcase)

How much time do you need? 4 seasons, 42 episodes = 31,5 hrs

Plot: The protagonist, Kiera Cameron (Rachels Nicols), is a cop from the year 2077 who travels back in time to present-day Vancouver to stop a group called Liber8 before it overthrows the Corporations, an association of companies that has taken place of the state. To this end, she works with the Detective Carlos Fonnegra (Victor Webster) of the Police Department and uses both the advanced technology brought from the future and the help of a teenage tech genius Alec Sadler (Erik Knudsen). Trapped in Vancouver, Kiera desperately wants to come back to her husband and son.

Time manipulations: several timelines, temporal paradoxes, time travelling with copies of the same person one of whom must be killed because the timeline will collapse. Time is considered as something flexible: “Destiny is not set. Time is not immutable. Time continuum is like a tree. It can grow wild or it can be cultivated.”

5. Wayward Pines (Chad Hodge, 2015-2016, Fox)


How much time do you need? 2 seasons, 20 episodes = 20 hrs

Plot: A Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) has a task of finding two missing agents. After a car accident he finds himself in the town of Wayward Pines where everyone is observed, one mustn’t talk of the past and a person who wants to leave is killed in public. Ethan finds the missing agent Kate who works in a toy shop now and claims to have lived in the town for 12 years although he saw her 5 weeks before. Ethan tries to solve the puzzling mystery of the town, its origin and purpose.

Time manipulations: a temporal breakdown between the past and the present.

Which TV show would you like to see first?

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