It could be argued that a time jump in a TV show is just a handy reset, the more modern version of ‘…and they woke up and it had all been a dream’. But conveniently skipping forward a few years in the lives of a set of a beloved characters – glossing over deaths, pregnancies, elections and more – can be a good way to freshen up a series. If it’s done properly.
Often, it’s under the guise of getting the band back together one last time. We see this particular manifestation in the latest series of Riverdale, set seven years in the future (presumably under a President Trump Jr. administration), where Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead, all 25 years old and returning to Riverdale for the first time in years, attempting to address some of the many, many issues they left behind.
A time jump in a teen drama is particularly effective – it taps into a youth we feel we have lost, even if we’re still living it. It also finally allows the actors to play their actual ages, not a character 10 years their junior (Jack in Dawson’s Creek – you’re thinking of the theme tune now, aren’t you – first appeared as a 16-year-old student when actor Kerr Smith was 26). This has worked very nicely thank you for the likes of The O.C., One Tree Hill and even Netflix‘s The Politician. It’s a useful thing to have in the back pocket for coming of age stories when everyone suddenly realises that these characters need to age more rapidly, since the show has either been axed and they need to wrap up the story, or the crow’s feet on the supposedly sophomore students are becoming too pronounced.
There are other circumstances born of necessity. Mad Men made a bit of a habit of time jumps – after all, we couldn’t have something always intended (probably) as a seven season show, take us all the way, year on year, from 1959 to 1970 – something’s got to give. As creator Matthew Weiner said: “I love writing that first episode as if the audience knows everything that has happened, and watching them piece it in their head. It’s an elliptical experience.” It allowed us to skip the immediate fallout of Peggy’s surprise pregnancy, the minutiae of setting up a new advertising firm, the torture of watching Roger Sterling’s mutton chops grow in, and also the very real problem of a Hollywood writers strike, which pressed pause on the production of many shows for almost a year.
Parks and Recreation skipped five years because Leslie Knope fell pregnant in the show, and, reportedly, Amy Poehler didn’t want to work with babies, plus they had just done a whole pregnancy arc with Rashida Jones’ Anne. Later, the show time jumped again, speeding up the characters’ lives so their stories could be wrapped up with a nice bow when the show ended; it intrigued us with a mystery fall-out between Leslie and Ron Swanson, jolting the writers and viewers and giving the story a new – albeit short – lease of life. One more episode, consisting almost entirely of time jumps, was saved for the finale.
Not only does this sort of device play with the audience’s expectations, it also scratches an itch within us – wishing our own time away; always looking at what’s going to happen next and wondering where we’ll be in so many years’ time; wanting to skip the drudgery of everyday life in favour of living only through the big, defining moments. It satisfies our generation’s need to skip to the good bits, an edited Instagram life where there are no pictures of you in your joggers waiting for the Amazon delivery.
And it works. The jolt of realisation which comes when you see that time is slipping away for your favourite characters, sometimes characters you have grown up with, speaks to a melancholy within us all, aware of our own mortality and already with a nostalgia for time lost. We salute Riverdale for indulging in a telly favourite – and reinvigorating its fanbase in the process.