Of the many changes that have taken place in television storytelling, the non-linear narrative is the most compelling of them all. Writers have stepped away from the traditional structure of the first act introducing characters, the second creating the conflict, and the third resolving the problem faced by the characters.
This willingness to experiment led to shows like Only Murders In The Building and 13 Reasons Why which take viewers on a journey from the end to the beginning, or Doctor Who which jumps around timelines using time travel to further the plot. These make for an incredible and novel viewing experience that keeps everyone on their toes.
This article contains mentions of suicide.
10 13 Reasons Why
Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why was an instant hit the moment it hit the streaming giant, and that was mainly because it had a unique narrative style. Hannah Baker’s story was the most tragic because she was shown to be dead at the beginning itself, and Clay set out to listen to the tapes and piece together what pushed her to take her own life.
Looking at her life backward, audiences were able to put together what drove the teen to the edge, and viewers went on that journey along with Clay. It was certainly a sobering experience when it was viewed this way.
9 Doctor Who
This classic yet controversial sci-fi TV series is one of the oldest that focuses on time travel with a kooky Time Lord called the Doctor taking his companions on wild adventures through space and time. Doctor Who has narrated fictional stories, as well as leaned on real-life history to create a wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey show.
The Doctor travels back and forth through time to fix problems that have already occurred or to ensure that villains aren’t destroying set events to change the course of history. The storytelling can get complex, but keeping up with the changing viewpoints and plots keeps audiences engaged.
8 The Haunting Of Hill House / The Haunting Of Bly Manor
The horror genre is usually cut and dry with a predictable sequence of events, but The Haunting Of Hill House took the non-linear route by showing the present state of the Crain family and dipping into the past to show how and why they came to be haunted in their beloved home.
The Haunting Of Bly Manor was the second season of Hill House, but largely a standalone story about Dani, an au pair who arrived at Bly Manor to care for two children, and ended up taking the place of the fearsome Lady in the Lake. Through rewinds and fast-forwards, the resolution to the story was revealed in parts, including the future of Miles, Owen, and Henry.
The insidious and thrilling story of Lumon Industries and its method of “severance” between the work consciousness and non-work consciousness is expertly told in Severance. When one employee, Mark, feels that something is off, he tries to figure out the project that all the employees are working on at Lumon.
The mysteries of the company abound throughout the series, and they are slowly but surely worked towards in a subdued but definitive non-linear fashion. Severance is one of TV’s foremost shows with a distinctive story style.
Lost was a seminal event in television history, even if it went downhill in its final season. It breathed new life into the sci-fi and drama genre as it charted the journey of the survivors of a plane crash on an island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
The show leaned on flash-forwards and flashbacks to reveal and solve the many secrets of the island, as well as all the characters who were trying their best to stay alive. Combined with supernatural elements like polar bears on a tropical island, the overall effect was a surreal one.
5 Only Murders In The Building
Only Murders In The Building quickly became one of the most binge-worthy comedies on Hulu, combining murder mystery and hilarity effortlessly. In its two seasons, the show had often shown murders first and then went back in time via memories, flashbacks, and revelations to figure out who did it.
Almost every character got this “historical” treatment, which ultimately helped Charles, Mabel, and Oliver get to the bottom of the whodunnits that plague the Arconia and their lives. The non-linear structure worked well here.
4 Daisy Jones & The Six
The rise and fall of Daisy Jones & the Six, a cult ’70s band, was narrated in the TV series of the same name. The show began 20 years in the future after the band dissolved and went their own separate ways. The members all came together to give interviews for a fictional documentary, thus going through the ’70s, and back to the present day.
The contrast between the two time periods was deliberate and really brought to life the wildness of the times. Many important details emerged at the end when they would traditionally have been at the beginning, like the documentary maker’s identity.
3 How I Met Your Mother
Cringey sitcom tropes aside, How I Met Your Mother was an important milestone in television shows that eschewed the traditional structure of three acts. Instead, HIMYM told the story largely in the past, with the narrator (Ted) sitting in the future with his kids.
The episodic flashbacks of Ted’s dating life and his friend group’s lives, too, were iconic in their own way. The audience had a sense of urgency as they looked for clues and got closer to getting the answer to the question that was in the title.
2 Rick & Morty
Rick and Morty took some time, but as predicted, the animated show also started using a non-linear format in many of its episodes, with the most notable being “Promortyus,” the seventh episode of season 4. The episode began with the duo being trapped with parasitic aliens on them, and the show reeled it back halfway in to show viewers how they ended up that way.
Rick and Morty is largely a sci-fi show, and it regularly deals with space travel, time travel, and breaking all sorts of walls in its course. Many timelines and dimensions merge and separate, leading to some non-linear tales that work for a show of this genre perfectly.
Nobody expected this reimagined Archie universe to change course, but that’s what Riverdale did after its first couple of seasons. There were several plotlines, the most shocking being the one about Jughead’s death, that showed the result first and then took the viewer threw a complex set of events that led to it.
The show featured many episodes that delved into the histories of the parents and individual characters, to better explain their motivations. Riverdale even temporarily changed to Rivervale, an alternate timeline that barely moved compared to the original one that the characters resided. This teen show, surprisingly, jumped through all sorts of wacky storytelling and somehow, it worked.
NEXT: 10 TV Seasons That Ruined The Show
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