Is it important to know what year it is when you’re watching a television show?
Television has a special relationship with time. As a serial mode of storytelling, what year it is at the time of release is more closely associated with television than it is with movies or books. We are used to watching movies and reading books whenever is most convenient for us, whereas historically television programs tend to be watched as part of a mass broadcast at one point in time. This is largely why the “water-cooler effect” is associated with television so much more than other forms of telling stories. This association is, of course, changing over time. Netflix and the rise of streaming, torrenting and on-demand services are changing the way we relate to serialized stories.
The Internet isn’t the only venue for breaking down the September-to-May model. Cable networks have been trying different airing models for years and the recent critical acclaim and mass appeal of shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Louie are proof that North American audiences are ready for other ways of releasing content.
Louie is actually a good example of a complication that arises from these alternate airing schedules. The show airs on FX usually somewhere between April and August. Despite this airing schedule, Louie episodes tend to take place in winter. If a scene takes place outside, Louis C.K. is almost always wearing his trademark heavy brown jacket, and the season 3 finale, which aired on September 27, 2012, took place between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. The story is still meaningful and understandable to the viewer (it’s not like we forget what Christmas is like for 11 months of the year) but there’s an intrinsic connection that gets lost when we watch fiction out of time.
The September-to-May model has time-based complications of its own. The model is probably best-suited to shows that take place in high school, however being forced into writing one season as representative of one grade level of school can be incredibly limiting. Glee had an especially hard time with this. Airing from fall to spring helped the show in a lot of ways. Prom and graduation (and the drama that go along with them) can always go at the end of a season, and the cheesy, up-beat tone of the show makes it great for Christmas episodes. However, the show constantly had to be adding and getting rid of characters as new students arrived and older students graduated. In the fourth season they tried to get around this by slowing down time. When season four ends it’s roughly February or March in the show and the next season picks up right where it left off. This leads to some weird time-based issues for the narrative. Marley performs Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” in the fifth episode (which would be around April 2013 in the show’s calendar), even though “Wrecking Ball” wasn’t released until August 2013. The show also shoehorned a Christmas episode into season five by having Jane Lynch introduce it as an unaired episode from season four. The episode is one of the show’s weakest and mostly just ends up calling attention to the fact that Cory Monteith’s character Finn Hudson wasn’t around anymore, since both the actor and character died between season four and five.
The decision to not keep Glee on track with real time was probably a necessary one, but one that lead to some messy narrative and continuity issues (two things the show creators never seemed to worry much about anyway).
Sometimes the best way to avoid these pitfalls is to just scrap the idea of a fixed sense of time altogether. By creating a show with a timelessly styled look and feel, show creators can get around connecting their narratives with any one specific era. The sets alone on Pushing Daisies create a setting that could exist in almost any modern time period. The characters themselves are kept timeless by characterizing them all differently. Emerson Cod sometimes talks as if he were just pulled out of a 1930s detective noir story while Kristin Chenoweth’s character Olive Snook often acts like she belongs in an animated musical. The show mashes all of these different genres together to create a look and feel that doesn’t have to be tied to any one specific year.
Superhero stories are constantly avoiding connecting characters to any specific time. Many of our most famous superheroes have existed for upwards of 75 years now and creating a timeless feel for them is a huge part of stopping the characters from becoming dated. You can read a Batman story today that came out in 1988 and still love it just as much because the character and setting are styled in a way that doesn’t have to make it feel too eighties.
On TV, Batman: The Animated Series did a fantastic job of blending some modern technology with 1930s noir and art deco settings. The result is a Gotham City that could exist in any year. Gotham, Fox’s Batman-less Batman show, continues this tradition. Characters wear hats from the 30s, drive cars from the 70s, wear suits from the 90s and use cell phones from the early 2000s. Artistic decisions like these free up the writers from time-based restraints that other shows, like Glee or Louie, are stuck with.
Ultimately, any fictional TV show could be said to exist in its own universe with its own rules. Even a show as grounded in reality as The Good Wife exists in a universe where in 2009 the Cook County State’s Attorney was Peter Florrick and not Anita Alvarez. Show creators are always free to make up the rules of their world but playing with a show’s connection to time can have unintended consequences on watchability and relatability.