When you read a lot of television writing, you start to realize that many critics have pet peeves or tropes that can make them a little dispirited about the medium as a whole. One such stumbling block is the reliance on in medias res in stories that don’t necessarily warrant them.
For the unfamiliar, in medias res is a latin term which translates to “in the middle of things.” On TV, utilization of the concept will often see an episode begin “in the middle of” an action-packed sequence, in which the audience has no idea what’s going on but are (theoretically) drawn-in enough to try and figure it out. At the conclusion of the scene, the show will many times insert a text card reading, “24 hours earlier” or some such cue, flashing back to tell its story in earnest, this time from the beginning.
The utilization of in medias res in TV series is again in the larger cultural conversation, thanks to HBO Max’s “Made For Love,” in addition to other new series, including Netflix’s “The Serpent,” HBO’s “Beartown,” and AMC’s “Gangs of London.” Specifically, Variety’s chief TV critic Caroline Framke and Rolling Stone’s TV critic Alan Sepinwall explicated their issues with the trope at length, particularly when it came to “Made For Love.”
In her review of the series, Framke admitted that it’s a gimmick that has paid off handsomely in other shows, including “Breaking Bad” and “Alias,” but what’s good for the goose is not always good for the gander. “So many shows are now defaulting to this method of jolting things into immediate action that very few of them end up justifying the choice,” Framke wrote. “Instead, they unnecessarily complicate their narratives in the hopes that the wrinkles will be interesting enough to grab your attention.”
For his part, Sepinwall wrote that showrunners within the industry that he’s spoken to recently have been getting network notes suggesting that a pilot episode begin in medias res, even though that was never the creator’s intention.
It’s impossible to speak in terms of absolutes with regard to the trend, but its continued application suggests a widespread attempt to falsely juice stories by injecting drama where it doesn’t belong. And what it further suggests is that shows are still starting their narratives at the wrong points.
That said, streaming has made the TV game into the wild west. If you can’t hook viewers in the first two minutes, you might not be able to catch them at all. But if that’s the case, is luring them in with straight trickery any kind of long-term solution if what it’s really doing is selling a false narrative?
I could tell you, but first we’d have to do a season-long flashback.
For more about the bait-and-switch of in medias res, check out this week’s episode of IndieWire’s TV podcast “Millions of Screens” as hosts Deputy TV Editor Ben Travers, Creative Producer Leo Garcia, and, myself, TV Awards Editor Libby Hill, try to puzzle out how to best give shows the benefit of the doubt, while also holding them accountable for their storytelling choices.
Plus, the gang gushes about the stupid fun that is Disney+’s “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” and Libby gets everyone up to date on the weekend’s Screen Actors Guild Awards. Stick around for a very special edition of Corgi Corner dedicated to another Netflix royal drama: “Bridgerton.” (Is this a backdoor pilot for Pom Palace, a sporadic clicker topic that is to “Bridgerton” what Corgi Corner is to “The Crown?” Mayhaps.)
In keeping with ongoing social distancing mandates, this week’s episode was again recorded from the comfort of everyone’s respective apartments, and we’re again offering viewers a video version of the podcast, as embedded above.
“Millions of Screens” is available on Anchor, Apple Podcasts, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. You can subscribe here or via RSS. Share your feedback with the crew on Twitter or sound off in the comments. Review the show on iTunes and be sure to let us know if you’d like to hear the gang address specific issues in upcoming editions of “Millions of Screens.” Check out the rest of IndieWire’s podcasts on iTunes right here.
This episode of “Millions of Screens” was produced by Leonardo Adrian Garcia.