The series begins as the hero winds his way through the desert in his motorhome in his motorhome, in white underpants with a gas mask on, with laboratory glasses breaking in the back and corpses sliding across the floor. Then the story jumps back in time and calmly tells how it could have come this far.
Starts a story right in the middle of the action. It is a method of storytelling that is as old as the art of storytelling itself. The Roman poet Horace advised in his letter Ars Poetica (ca. 12 BC) young writers already know that they can not tell their story ab ovo (from the egg), but in media res (in the middle) had to start because it immediately draws the reader into a story. And many a classic – from Homer’s odyssey to Tarantinos Pulp Fiction – use it successfully.
in media res† also with series creators, it is a popular method to start the first episode. The opening protocol of Breaking Bad, described above, is a good example. And the series too lost start in the middle of the action: right after the crash of Oceanic 815 on a tropical island. Both are among the very best opening scenes in modern TV history. But it is precisely on the small screen that in media res have had to lose some power lately. This is because the method is used too often.
Back in Time
A small selection of new titles released in the last few weeks with an opening in the middle of the action: Pam & Tommy, WeCrashed, The Dropout, Tokyo Vice, Dirty Lines, Winning Time and Outer range† After a first exciting or stimulating scene, they all jump a few hours, a few weeks, a few months or sometimes years back in time. A leap that in several cases is unnecessary, as the story could also have been told chronologically. The beginning can even remove all tension in advance. Why spend eight hours of your precious screen time watching an unfriendly man played by Jared Leto create a chain of common workspaces when you can already see in the first scene that he is going to lose that business?
In worst case in media res even an ugly pimple on an otherwise perfect series. Take the charming comedy series Only murder in the building which was published last year. In fact, this series has a perfect beginning: the three main characters, played by comedians Steve Martin, Martin Short and singer Selena Gomez, are introduced one by one as they take to the streets of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In their voice-overs, they ponder over life in New York and Arconia, the stately building where all three live. And because it’s New York, Martin’s character gets a middle finger as a greeting from his neighbor, and Shorts is almost hit at the pedestrian crossing. “But one thing is for sure in this city,” the latter concludes, pondering. “Just when you think all days are the same, something you’ve never seen coming happens.” After which the opening texts begin.
Again a perfect start that gives a good idea of what the rest of the series is going to look like. If you do not like these few minutes, you can skip the rest. And that’s why it’s so unfortunate that this is not the beginning of the series. For before this cut, there are fifty completely unnecessary seconds as a heavily armed police team invades Arconia, Short and Martin run down the stairs in panic, and Gomez is found near a corpse with a giant bloodstain on his white sweater. A scene that only returns at the end of the first season and has no value without everything that comes before it. It’s almost as if the creators did not have enough faith in the attraction of their story and so quickly got an ‘action scene’ in the beginning
According to Charlotte Howell, who teaches film and television at Boston University, the technology is currently being used in abundance due to two major shifts in the television landscape: the increasing popularity of the series and the exponential growth of the streamer supply. “That in media resopening can catch a viewer right away, even if a series is not immediately ready pay off because the story is told over several sections. And it can make a series stand out from the hundreds of original titles that come out every year. “
Many an American critic describes in media res now as a plague plaguing the genre. One who “sucks life out of too many stories,” critic Alan Sepinwall told the magazine Rolling stones† According to Sepinwall, it is not the series creators but the studio bosses and networks that are driving this latest wave in media res has caused. Many showrunners told him they were specifically asked if they could start their series right in the middle of the action. And in one case, it was even a requirement, otherwise the series would not be made. Rachel Shukert, showrunner of the Netflix shutdown The babysitter clubtold in an interview with Vulture that the streamer from data knows why viewers drop out and that this is the case with certain series if too little happens in the first few minutes. “People do not get over that bump.”
Yet there are also examples of series that grab the viewer without a big bang in the beginning. Sally Rooney’s film adaptation Normal people, a series described by director Lenny Abrahamson as deliberately quiet and slow, was a sensation when it came out in 2020. Precisely because the people who stuck despite the ‘slow’ start were rewarded with a beauty of a story and shared their love for the series on social media. The success was so great that the director decided to transfer the miniseries to Rooney’s second book Conversations with friends, which will be released next week, so slow down a bit. Just because it’s possible.