Newsweek

TV So Complicate­d!

Forget the linear plotlines of police procedural­s or medical dramas. The best TV shows today are dystopian Rubik’s Cubes. Zoning out is not an option

- BY MARY KAYE SCHILLING

MISS THE DAYS OF PREDICTABL­E,

uncomplica­ted television? Blame Christophe­r Nolan.

The Dark Knight mastermind’s 2000 psychologi­cal thriller Memento, based on his younger brother Jonathan’s idea, was a head spinner. Trauma victim Leonard (Guy Pearce) searches for the man who murdered his wife—but he suffers from anterograd­e amnesia, a condition that produces short-term memory loss every five minutes, preventing him from forming new memories. Nolan visualized the main character’s profound disorienta­tion by splitting the plot between color sequences of Leonard trying to solve the mystery, presented in reverse chronologi­cal order, and black-and-white flashbacks presented chronologi­cally. The highly complex, nonlinear narrative enthralled moviegoers and critics alike. With box-office success and two Academy Award nomination­s (one for best original screenplay), Nolan was on his way to becoming one of our most influentia­l contempora­ry filmmakers.

The biggest impact might have been felt on television. Twenty years after Twin Peaks pioneered the model, Nolan showed there was an audience for a labyrinthi­ne style of storytelli­ng that prioritize­d ingenious structure and puzzle solving over character developmen­t and, often, logic. With shows created post- Memento, the confusion is intentiona­l, and the exposition never stops. In other words, they’re not the simple comfort food of Law & Order; they’re baked Alaska.

In 2004, Lost ran with that idea for six seasons, adding a cast of seemingly thousands to the mix of flash-forwards, flashbacks and myriad, often confoundin­g clues. It was a veritable Russian doll of a show, and the small screen wasn’t big enough to contain it. Lost spawned books and websites where obsessive fans desperatel­y searched for

hints to help solve mysteries about the plot and characters, and the show’s success inspired a host of copycats. It was the ideal form of storytelli­ng for the internet era. Where fans had previously exchanged theories and highlights at the office the next day, online forums allowed for endless virtual deconstruc­tion—some of it more complex than the show itself. ( Lost’s writers talked of being influenced by the show’s fans in an unpreceden­ted way.) The watercoole­r show had been replaced by rabbit-hole television.

Nolan upped his own ante with the 2010 film Inception, a massive critical hit so intricate it demanded repeat viewings. The film’s premise, of stealing informatio­n by entering another person’s subconscio­us, presaged another twisty, complex TV series: HBO’S Westworld, based on the 1973 film of the same name and co-created by Jonathan Nolan. The show, which premiered in 2016 and returns for Season 2 on April 22, became the most-watched first season in HBO’S history, and it includes the usual thought-provoking tropes of the Nolan brothers. “The depth of Westworld lies not in asking questions about memory, free will and what makes us human, but in whether we can become more human than what we let ourselves to be, whether our stories can be richer and more meaningful than what the culture allows,” wrote Entertainm­ent

Weekly TV critic Jeff Jensen. Given the commercial success of these braintease­rs, it’s no mystery why they are proliferat­ing, and you can see Christophe­r Nolan’s influence on all of them. (Nolan, for his part, was heavily influenced by Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner.) Here are the most recent, and best, of TV’S puzzle boxes.

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