Nonlinear narrative | television


United States

In American television, there are several examples of series that make use of nonlinear narrative in different forms and for different purposes. Some notable examples are Lost, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Once Upon a Time, Arrow, Orange Is the New Black, and True Detective. Even though it is often found in drama, some comedy shows use nonlinear narrative too, such as Arrested Development and How I Met Your Mother. This kind of narrative is used in several ways. Some series only have certain nonlinear episodes, such as Penny Dreadful and The Leftovers. Others use nonlinear storylines throughout the whole series, such as Lost and Arrow. Other series use nonlinear narrative in the beginning of a season and then explore the past until they meet, such as Damages and Bloodline.

The past in certain episodes

Some television series use nonlinear narrative in certain episodes to fully explore an important part of the main characters' past. An example is Showtime's horror drama Penny Dreadful, which features one episode per season that is entirely devoted to exploring key moments in Vanessa Ives' (Eva Green) past. Another example is HBO's drama The Leftovers, whose ninth episode is set in the past and explores the lives of the main characters before the critical event that drives the story took place. Fox's sci-fi series Fringe, the Amazon original comedy-drama Transparent and the Netflix original comedy Grace and Frankie use this technique only in certain episodes too.

The future or past throughout the series

There are certain television series that use nonlinear narrative to explore the past - or future - of one or various characters throughout its whole run. The ABC television series Lost made extensive use of nonlinear story telling, with each episode typically featuring a primary storyline on the island as well as a secondary storyline from another point in a character's life, either past or future. So does The CW's series Arrow which, in every episode, features a storyline following the life of Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) stranded in an island and a main storyline five years later in which he goes back home and decides to become a vigilante. Using a similar storytelling technique, Netflix's original series Orange Is the New Black explores the lives of the main characters in prison and also some important part of their past before they became inmates. Another example is FX's horror-drama series The Strain.

As a narrative hook

Some television series use nonlinear narrative in the beginning of a season as a narrative hook, showing an intense or shocking event, and then extensively explore the past and the reasons that lead that event to happen. A notable example is the AMC drama series Breaking Bad, which in the beginning of its final season showed a neglected and lonesome Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and then explored what had happened to him. This technique was also used in Breaking Bad's Pilot and in its second season. Using the same formula, FX's Emmy Award winning legal drama Damages starring Glenn Close, begins each season with an intensely melodramatic event taking place and then traveling back six months earlier. Throughout the season, each episode shows events both in the past, present, and future that lead up to and follow said event. Netflix's original series Bloodline and ABC's crime drama How to Get Away with Murder use a similar storytelling technique.

To mimic human memory

Another reason why a television series uses nonlinear narrative is to better portray the way human memory recalls events. In its first season, the HBO anthology series True Detective used nonlinear narrative depicting the events that the main characters described and in the way they remembered them. Showtime's Golden Globe winning drama The Affair uses this narrative technique in the same way. However, by using unreliable narrators, this show emphasizes how differently two people recall the same events.

Other examples

In its fourth and fifth season, AMC's post-apocalypctic drama The Walking Dead used nonlinear narrative extensively.

Even though it is not common, some comedy also shows use nonlinear narrative. An example is the sitcom Arrested Development which, in its fourth season, made heavy use of nonlinear narrative, devoting each episode to explore the story of each of its characters separately.

Other examples of nonlinear narrative in American television are: 12 Monkeys, A to Z, Alcatraz, American Horror Story, Better Call Saul, BoJack Horseman, Daredevil, Fargo, The Flash, FlashForward, Forever, Gotham, Grounded for Life, Hannibal, Heroes, House of Cards, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, Person of Interest, Pretty Little Liars, The Returned, Revolution, Sense8, The Vampire Diaries and Wayward Pines.


Japanese anime series sometimes present their plot in nonlinear order. In The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, for example, the episodes were deliberately aired in non-chronological order. A more nonlinear example is Baccano!, where every scene is displayed in non-chronological order, with most scenes taking place at various times during the early 1930s and some scenes taking place before (extending back to the 18th century) and after (extending forward to the 21st century). Other examples include Durarara!!, Monogatari Series, Yami to Bōshi to Hon no Tabibito, Touka Gettan, Rental Magica, Ergo Proxy, Fullmetal Alchemist, Axis Powers Hetalia, Hidamari Sketch, Mekakucity Actors, Princess Principal, and (partly) Boogiepop Phantom.

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