1. Battlestar Galactica (2006)
Sometimes, a TV show backs itself into a story corner and isn’t sure how to get out. Before the age of heavy serialization, this was no real problem. A new story could be booted up the very next week. But as serialization increasingly became the order of the day, it got harder and harder to ignore that sometimes, shows would get mired in untenable status quos. Enter the time jump, whose use was popularized by the 2006 Battlestar Galactica episode “Lay Down Your Burdens.” Unlike a time jump that occurs between seasons (favored by series like 24 and Mad Men), the on-screen time jump takes a series from one chronology and hops over a few months or years to another one. It’s not a flash-forward or chronological jumble. It boldly leaps ahead and largely stays where it lands. In “Lay Down Your Burdens,” this means the new president, Gaius Baltar, lays down his head after having given the order to settle on promising planet New Caprica, then lifts it up one year later, when things are steadily going to shit—and the Cylons are about to invade. Worst of all, though? Commander Adama grew a mustache.
2. China Beach (1990-91)
Battlestar was not the first series to play chronological hopscotch. That honor likely belongs to China Beach, which didn’t just unleash a single new timeline in its final season, but a host of them. In the fourth-season premiere, it introduced a new storyline set in 1985, well after the show’s Vietnam War-era setting. Then, over the course of the season, it filled in a few gaps from the end of the Vietnam era, told a few stories in the ’70s, and spent much of its time in the 1985 era. This list focuses on shows that started out in one era, then jumped to another right there onscreen, but the audaciousness of China Beach’s conceit was so palpable—and influential—that it needs to be mentioned.
3. Cast Away (2000)
There are numerous examples of these sorts of time jumps from the world of film. But in terms of influencing the TV time jump, the most likely culprit is Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away. The first part of the film is about as methodical as can be expected from a Hollywood holiday movie. Tom Hanks’ Chuck Noland says goodbye to his not-quite fiancée, takes off for Malaysia, and crashes somewhere in the Pacific, leading to a step-by-step survival picture. Chuck collects what he can from the wreckage. He forages for food. He builds a fire and keeps it going. He constructs various SOS signs. A little under an hour-and-a-half into the movie, he accepts that he can’t wait for a dentist and deals with his abscessed tooth himself. When he falls unconscious, director Robert Zemeckis dissolves from the fire to the sunlight on the ocean to deliver one of the most memorable chyrons of the decade: “Four Years Later.” He pans up to reveal the man in the Christmas sweater and the short hairdo is now in a loincloth and a beard. After such a detailed opening, the elision is stunning. Zemeckis lingers a moment so the audience can catch its breath. He’s traded the longueurs of lonely island living for a single dramatic statement. Chuck’s survival looked hard to begin with. We don’t know the half of it.
4. Alias (2001)
Another major influence behind the time jump was J.J. Abrams’ Alias—a show that made its bones on twists and cliffhangers. The series took drama to a whole new level in the season two finale, “The Telling.” In its first two seasons, the show introduced a complicated premise and then systematically blew up pieces of it. By the time the second season ended, it didn’t seem like there was anything left that could surprise Alias’ audience. Not so. After following protagonist Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) through prophecies, super weapons, and spy conspiracies, in the last scenes of the second season finale, she takes on a villain—the final boss, or at least a medium-sized boss. After the brutal, bloody fight, Sydney passes out—and wakes up in Hong Kong, two years later. Alias doesn’t bother with a chyron offering the information. Instead, she—and we—find out in the worst possible way: slow, creeping realization, punctuated by a mysterious scar, a wedding ring, and the lights and sounds of a foreign city. Alias was always fond of creeping, suspenseful strings and smash-cuts to black—and there’s really no better deployment of all that than a sudden time shift that resets the entire story in the last minutes of a season finale.
5. Desperate Housewives (2008)
The time jump went mainstream in 2008 when this popular primetime soap jumped on the bandwagon. After a revolutionary first season and a lackluster second one, Desperate Housewives was, again, on a bit of a hot streak by the time of its season four finale. In this explosive episode, Adam crashes through Tom and Lee’s commitment ceremony with a car as he escapes from homicidal Wayne, Katherine’s ex. Katherine finally kills her abusive husband, and the ladies of Wisteria Lane back up her self-defense plea. It would have been a fine, nicely tied-up finale, but this being Desperate Housewives, a giant twist was undoubtedly in store. It came in the form of a black screen that read “Five Years Later,” an unexpected flash-forward that showed unhappy outcomes for some and happy endings for others: Lynette’s twins are juvenile delinquents; Bree is a Martha-Stewart-type mogul; Susan is with a man who’s not her husband Mike; and former happily childless model Gaby is now a frumpy mother of two small kids. This time-jump jolted some extra life into the series, setting up a variety of new storylines that wouldn’t have been possible without it, and certainly gave viewers a lot to ponder over the summer until season five began.
6. Ghost Whisperer (2009)
By 2009, time jumps were no longer so radical, at least if the fact that one turned up on the fucking Ghost Whisperer is any indication. Standing proudly alongside Patricia Arquette’s Medium and Eliza Dushku’s Tru Calling, Ghost Whisperer was Jennifer Love Hewitt’s entry in the great triumvirate of ’00s network dramas about women talking to dead people. The fifth season opened by dealing with two prophecies about Love Hewitt’s character, longtime ghost whisperer Melinda Gordon: She would die on her son’s due date, and said child would be an even more powerful ghost whisperer than she. Mother and baby both survived, but this now meant the show would have to deal with the logistical nightmare of having a baby in every scene. Besides, how could a baby even show off any ghost-whispering powers? The show sidestepped both these obstacles with a time jump, as a brief montage of the family’s porch marked the passage of time by rushing through five years’ worth of toys and playthings before resuming with the kid’s fifth birthday. The jump meant the show could get away with casting an 8-year-old boy in the role—one actually able to learn lines and legally allowed to work for more than 20 minutes at a time—and young Aiden Gordon proceeded to show off some of his formidable ghost-whispering abilities throughout the show’s final year.
7. Breaking Bad (2012)
For most of the show’s running time, Breaking Bad benefited from an intense, claustrophobic approach to time. A few flash-forwards aside (like the framing device of the second season, or the opening scene of season 5A), Walter White’s journey from nebbish to Nero happened in painstaking intimacy, showing each step of the cancer-ridden chemistry teacher’s descent into hell. But the climax of the first half of the show’s fifth season changed the rules. The jump wasn’t as as big as other shows on this list—a mere three months, during which Walt accumulated more money and little else changed—but it was surprising nonetheless, tipping over certain basic expectations that had been with the series from the start. After four seasons of fighting against men nominally worse than himself, Walt finally “won,” eliminating all competition and turning the meth business from a nail-baiting constant struggle into the dream of a twisted but fundamentally practical entrepreneur. Stripping away any opposition removed the illusion that Walt’s decisions were motivated by anything more than a selfish desire to win at any cost, and the time jump allowed for enough space to make the status quo of the second half of the season plausible; that Walt, after achieving his darkest dreams, might finally realize that those dreams were empty in and of themselves, and make a doomed attempt to put his sins behind him.
8. True Blood (2013)
By the 2013-14 TV season, the time jump had become a device that just about any show could break out at just about any time. Yet no show needed it more than True Blood, a series that had gotten stuck in a mire of its own continuity, owing to the fact that it hadn’t skipped any significant amount of time since its first episode. Yet the six-month jump in season six finale “Radioactive” was the worst side of the time jump, making a bunch of random, illogical changes, simply because it could. Vampire Bill was a writer now, because why not? Sam is the mayor, for the same reason. And Sookie and Alcide are in a relationship, because the show hasn’t tried that yet. It’s a last, desperate heave from a show that was already feeling pretty desperate. Who knows how it will play into the final season, which begins this month?
9. Vikings (2014)
Befitting Vikings’ no-nonsense protagonist Ragnar Lothbrok, the series has a welcome habit of cutting through the perfunctory and charging ahead to new and exciting adventures. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the second episode of the show’s second season (“Invasion”), where, after a season premiere that seems to set any number of potentially draggy plot points in motion, the episode promptly flashes the words “four years later” on the screen. That means that after Ragnar’s steadfast, fiery wife Lagertha leaves him in episode one because he suggests a plural marriage with the dull but knocked-up Aslaug, the audience is spared everyone’s adjustment period, instead jumping to the shocking fact that Lagertha has remarried (to a decidedly unworthy nobleman), and that Ragnar’s already impregnated Aslaug a few more times. Lagertha’s son Bjorn has aged in the interim from the sensitive, towheaded Nathan O’Toole to the hulking, Thor-esque Alexander Ludwig—ensuring no moping, just cleaving. Ragnar’s treacherous brother Rollo has already processed his betrayal by turning into a hopeless, remorseful drunk, and the entire series overcomes the uncharacteristically logy pin-setting of the premiere, charging ahead and daring viewers to keep up.
10. Helix (2014)
Ronald D. Moore succeeded with a time jump on Battlestar, so why not try one on a later series he executive-produced? The incredibly dumb Syfy show Helix ended a disorganized first season with a time jump during the finale in a desperate attempt to inject life into a premise that was dead on arrival. After spending 13 episodes wandering in circles around a base that seemed to provide all the answers to the mysteries of the universe—or all the answers to “how many shades of white are there in the Arctic?”—the final moments of the finale blows it up, trapping all the characters inside except for the most boring trio. The two dudes (who are both in love with the same woman) toss the woman into a helicopter, for some reason, and then the episode jumps to a year later. The guys are in France, exchanging clandestine whispers and stacks of cash. And the woman, last seen in a helicopter? She’s got silver eyes and is meeting with a bunch of corporate types. And this is a show that got renewed for a second season!
11. Parks And Recreation (2014)
Leslie Knope ended the most recent season of Parks And Recreation in style, becoming a regional director with the National Parks Service while also expecting triplets. The NPS job could immediately serve as an engine to drive the show’s plots, but the prospect of Ben and Leslie as new parents threatened to push the show too far away from its workplace-comedy roots. Creator Mike Schur has said he took direct inspiration from Battlestar Galactica in finding the solution to this storytelling problem; the finale zooms in on one of the lone objects in Leslie’s big new office—a photo of her beloved Parks department staff—only to zoom back out three years later, by which time Leslie has given birth, gotten the office up and running, changed her hairstyle, and seen enough of Jon Hamm’s Ed over the last three years to know that he’s got to go. The show’s final season will pick up the story in 2017, and it remains to be seen just where any of the other Pawnee residents will be in their lives in three years, but the aging up of the triplets means the show can remain focused on Leslie’s professional life, as it was always meant to be.
12. Fargo (2014)
[WARNING: Plot points from last night’s episode of Fargo revealed below.]
The time jump is no longer just for finales, if that Vikings episode and the most recent episode of FX’s miniseries version of Fargo are any indication. With two and a half episodes left in its season, Fargo skipped past a whole year of time, past characters who were stuck in impossible situations, and past the beginnings of new relationships. After a lengthy pan across the frozen Minnesota wastes, the episode picked up after 365 days had passed to find female lead Molly Solverson married and pregnant, her husband working as a postman, and creepily awful Lester Nygaard accepting a salesman of the year award in Vegas—where he promptly bumped into the villainous Lorne Malvo, whom he hadn’t seen in the interim. It was a bold, ballsy move for a show fond of bold, ballsy moves, and, like all the best and worst time jumps, it changed everything.