The Past Is Never Dead: On TV’s Backstory Problem

By Elizabeth AlsopApril 29, 2024

The Past Is Never Dead: On TV’s Backstory Problem
EVERYONE IS UNHAPPY in Ennis, Alaska, the setting of the fourth season of True Detective (2014– ). To be fair, things are pretty bad: a mining outfit has wrecked the local ecosystem; blizzards are frequent, and temperatures subzero; the town has entered a two-week stretch during which the sun never rises; and there may be something spooky and The Thing–like in the permafrost. To top it all off, local police have just discovered a terrifying tangle of bodies on the tundra, frozen into a “corpsicle” that recalls the agonies of Dante’s Inferno.

And that’s just the pilot. There are more calamities to come, but also, we learn, more that have already come, in a previous timeline, many revealed in flashbacks—to crime scenes, car accidents—that disclose the personal traumas suffered by the series’ leads, local police chief Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and her partner, Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis). Those who are not already traumatized soon will be. “Prior’s fucked for life, isn’t he?” Navarro asks Danvers, about the young deputy who has (spoiler alert) just shot his father and has been left to clean up the bloody crime scene. “Maybe,” Danvers responds. “It’s crazy the shit that we survive.”

In this sense, the residents of Ennis are representative of a cultural landscape shaped, as Parul Sehgal has argued, by the unprecedented rise of the “trauma plot,” the “one plot [that] has arrived to rule them all.” True Detective: Night Country isn’t even the most extreme example of this trend, which has become especially diffuse within prestige television drama, surfacing, in just the past two years, in shows as diverse as Yellowjackets (2021– ), The Bear (2022– ), Mrs. Davis (2023), A Murder at the End of the World (2023), Fleishman Is in Trouble (2022), and Star Trek: Picard (2020–23)in which, as Adam Kotsko wrote on Twitter, “the clichés of contemporary TV storytelling are so overpowering and irresistible that they even gave Jean-Luc Picard a Childhood Trauma Backstory.”

It wasn’t always thus. “Trauma has become synonymous with backstory,” Sehgal writes, “but the tyranny of backstory is itself a relatively recent phenomenon—one that, like any successful convention, has a way of skirting our notice.” At this point, however, it may be more accurate to say that the phenomenon has leapfrogged past mere notice to broad popular acceptance. As Christine Smallwood observes, some fiction writers now “conceive of backstory only in terms of trauma. And as a corollary, some readers read only for backstory.”

The problem with the trauma plot’s omnipresence, then, is not just that it flattens fictional subjects—“reduc[ing] character to symptom,” in Sehgal’s phrase—but that it risks flattening our reading (or watching) experience too, by continually training our attention backwards, rerouting it through the same interpretative channels. Nowhere is the problem more acute than in the multiseason television series, in which opportunities to deploy trauma-informed flashbacks are almost infinitely present, and in which the inclusion of explanatory backstory has become uniquely valorized—understood, at least since Lost (2004–10) and The Sopranos (1999–2007), as a mark of televisual prestige.

There is nowhere, in other words, in which the trauma backstory is present in higher concentrations than in the long-form serial television drama. More than just one medium among others, prestige TV offers a flash point for thinking through the broader implications of trauma-beholden storytelling, and the homogeneity that sets in when narrative compulsively genuflects to the past.

Take the finale of True Detective: Night Country. (More spoilers ahead!) Even as Danvers and Navarro plunge into an ice cave, moving forward—and down, and sideways—in their efforts to solve the murder of Indigenous activist Annie Kowtok (Nivi Pedersen) and the creepy deaths of the Tsalal Arctic Research Station scientists, the episode keeps pulling us back. As Danvers hovers near death, hypothermic after a fall through the ice and stranded for a long dark night at Tsalal, we cut to the past: to the scene of the crash that killed her young son, Holden (Inuik Lee Nielsen Shapiro), and then to gauzier images of herself as a glowing young mom, blowing out birthday candles. Earlier, when Navarro happened to mention seeing Holden’s ghost (Ennis is lousy with ghosts), Danvers screamed, “[Y]ou leave my kid out of it!” But the series refuses to, reverting to images of the dead child in what can’t help but feel like a bid to goose sympathy for an unpleasant character. Viewers can take the hint: everything, from Danvers’s day-drinking and angry hotel-room sex to her generally self-destructive bent, can be explained with reference to this single catastrophic event. Interpretation, more than time, may be a flat circle.

The result is a show that, as Andy Greenwald put it in a recent episode of The Watch, is “too busy loading everyone with past events, past trauma, past things that needed to be healed through the mechanism of these six episodes.” But, he adds, this orientation also makes it “emblematic of where we are with TV.” Not only does the overreliance on flashbacks threaten to create a kind of narrative monoculture, in which many series, regardless of genre, now appear to follow the same sad, inevitable arc; there’s also a knock-on effect for audiences, who are being supplied with ready-made motivations for all character behavior. Increasingly, viewers’ inferences are being preempted by these instructive look-backs, counteracting what is arguably among the chief pleasures of watching serialized narrative. The problem, then, is not just that there are too many flashbacks but that TV seems to have so thoroughly co-opted them for traumatic-explanatory purposes as well.

Seen in this light, the overproduction of backstory emerges as more than just an annoying storytelling cliché. It also belongs to a new wave of TV gimmickry masquerading as artistry. Television, of course, has always sold things, but there was no pretense that commercials were high art. By contrast, the gimmick of the traumatic backstory presents itself under the guise of quality. While appearing to heighten textual intricacy, it actually insures against interpretive difficulty, delivering a “meaning” that has been determined in advance.

The trauma-fueled flashback, in short, has come to feel like a mark of bad-faith storytelling: a device used to promote the illusion of narrative complexity where little may actually exist. The impression of style produced by these temporal anachronies—once cutting-edge, now commonplace—appears for now to be persuasive to audiences, trained by a generation of post-network television to associate time-jumping with narrative richness and density. But when it comes to all this backward glancing, more may actually be less.


No narrative device is inherently reactionary, of course. Historically, for instance, flashbacks served a powerfully thematic function in film noir, where they dramatized the fatalistic trajectory of protagonists caught up, much like the movies’ blacklisted creators, in a narrowing dragnet. But employed indiscriminately—applied topically—the technique can feel like an empty signifier of quality. In acclaimed franchises like True Detective, auteur-driven projects like A Murder at the End of the World, or Mike Flanagan’s entire TV corpus, the recourse to trauma determinism can register as fan service: giving the people the exposition they want.

Take Mrs. Davis, a pleasurably loopy show about a nun charged with saving the world from a friendly takeover by AI by first finding, and then destroying, the Holy Grail. As if that were not already enough plot, Sister Simone (Betty Gilpin) must also resolve her differences with a cold, exacting mother whose idea of parental instruction—we learn in a childhood flashback—involved allowing her daughter to walk into a booby trap that grievously injured her, as well as come to terms with her father’s death, which turns out to be upsetting in the extreme. (That the show was co-created by Damon Lindelof, who helped codify the prestige TV flashback, then paid a price for Lost’s proliferating timelines, is not incidental here.) Mrs. Davis’s comic surrealism and lively pace leaven the backstory, but I had to wonder why the series needed so many past events to justify action in the present. Or what it would mean to take, say, True Detective’s environmental devastation plot—which is also a Native peoples’ displacement plot—seriously enough not to paper it over with hyperpersonal tragedies, mostly afflicting cops.

The issue, in the case of the latest installment of True Detective, is not only the one endemic to copaganda—that all this care lavished on the inner life of police officers is time not spent on the victim, who remains thinly sketched. There’s also the fact that such aggressive tunneling into past ordeals creates the illusion of depth while delivering—through these showy textual mediations—the kind of bluntly shocking first-person experiences that satisfy a cultural appetite for immediacy. Put another way, by backstopping their stories with dead people, contemporary television creators betray a lack of courage in their shows’ narrative convictions. How high must the emotional stakes be, series like True Detective, The Bear, and Mrs. Davis prompt us to consider, to ensure viewer engagement? How painful and fully exposed the characters’ suffering?


All the more reason to celebrate other series that, to quote my own recent skeet, dare to “tell a story on TV with no flashbacks.” One contender might be Dead Ringers (2023), a show that resisted the expositional impulse even as its twincestuous psychodrama seemed to invite it. While the fourth episode includes a few flashbacks to the infancy of Beverly and Elliot (both Rachel Weisz), there’s no indication that anything the twins’ young parents did in the past could account for their subsequent estrangement. Instead, the series lets the reasons for that disaffection hover, disquietingly, in the present. Something similar could be said for Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2024), which leaves the circumstances that led to the formation of brownstone Brooklyn’s most dysfunctional spy couple unexplored.

Then, there’s a lesser-seen show like Full Circle (2023), Steven Soderbergh’s New York–set, limited series thriller. In an interview, Soderbergh explained that he deliberately resisted a “branching” structure, in favor of providing narrative information in the present:

I think we determined that it was more organic with the style of the storytelling to have us learn […] as the characters learned. We really wanted to save those final pieces of the puzzle for that that big dialogue scene […] I’m the first person to tell you: Let’s figure out a way to show something and not tell it. When people say, “What’s the biggest difference between movies and television?” I go, “Oh, I can tell you that right now. In a movie, people don’t talk for long periods of time. That’s the difference between movies and television.” However, having said that, I am not afraid of two people in a room. I built my whole career on two people in a room.

Soderbergh’s comment suggests that the film industry’s bias against “big dialogue scenes” may be partly to blame for TV’s turn toward flashbacks as an information-delivery system. In a moment when major directors still reflexively deprecate “two people in a room” talking, it makes sense that just showing viewers what happened might seem preferable. “Frankly, I hate dialogue,” Denis Villeneuve told Variety recently. “Dialogue is for theatre and television.”

But another option, of course, is simply not to explain at all—the path taken by The Curse (2023), a show that, it must be said, is so sui generis as to disqualify it as an example of anything. As those who watched the finale will know, the show’s refusal to provide a rationale for the entirely mystifying events of the episode’s back half was a choice. Interestingly, the final installments of both The Curse and True Detective end with men seemingly destroyed by vengeful forces. But it’s worth noting the comparative absence of “discourse” occasioned by The Curse’s baffling conclusion, a silence that might reflect the utterly confounding nature of its finish but might also tell us something about viewers’ diminished tolerance for the un- or underexplained. Even a series like Yellowjackets—which, as a show centrally about trauma, makes the smartest, most self-conscious use of the trauma-backstory structure—seems to have frustrated and annoyed fans not only by the surprise character death that ends season two but also by its failure to achieve Total Resolution of all plotlines and mysterious goings-on.

Whether that sense of entitlement to answers is a product of online explainer culture or the backlash to a perceived overmystification of long-form TV occasioned by the ambiguous endings of canonical series like The Sopranos or Lost, the outcome, at least anecdotally, seems to be a narrowing of audience expectations. More than 20 years ago, The Sopranos could dare to suggest that Tony Soprano’s (James Gandolfini) childhood backstory, in the end, didn’t matter. Despite Dr. Melfi’s (Lorraine Bracco) assurances (“We’ve made real progress today”), Tony’s recovery of a primal scene of pork-store violence doesn’t change or explain much of anything.

But times have changed. As backstory-forward storytelling has become normalized, deviation from these narrative protocols—motivation on demand, exposition in full, trauma all the time—may strike fans as falling short. Near the end of Mrs. Davis, the titular AI that has achieved world domination describes the logic behind the content it delivers. “My users aren’t responsive to the truth,” it tells the main character. “They’re much more engaged when I tell them exactly what they want to hear.” As it turns out, that may be the case.

LARB Contributor

Elizabeth Alsop teaches film and media studies at CUNY. She is the author of Making Conversation in Modernist Fiction (Ohio State UP, 2019) and a forthcoming book on the films of Elaine May. Her cultural criticism has appeared in outlets including The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, TLS, Bookforum, Film Quarterly, Public Books, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, where she is also a film and television editor.


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